In 1888, Thomas Greenwood, a reformer and campaigner for museums and libraries, wrote that museums ‘should be considered as absolutely necessary for the welfare of every Municipality throughout the country.’ He went on to suggest that Tt is only the rate-supported museums which are doing really useful work.’1 Such a judgement puts municipal museums at the heart of the Victorian urban fabric and society. Yet it was not at all clear, even to the most committed museum apologist, precisely what function they might fulfil in municipalities. Among the objects that Greenwood listed for such an institution were to provide rational amusement, to facilitate both broad popular education and specialised, advanced studies, and to represent the locality both in terms of its natural features and its commercial concerns. Coming from a very different set of concerns, though, Ruskin argued that museums should aim for education not entertainment, and advanced not elementary education at that.2 This book, in examining the birth and development of municipal museums up to 1914, attempts to understand why so much in the way of hopes and fears was pinned on these institutions; how they acted on society and how society acted on them. It was not only in the nineteenth century that museums were seen as important if contradictory places; they have increasingly appeared in various studies in history, cultural studies, museology and art history as agencies creating modernity, policing the working class, creating legitimacy for the elite; producing national and imperial discourse and developing new forms of professional and subject-based authority/ It has been argued that ‘museums were the archetypal institutional form of the modem period.’4 One gets the impression that these were extremely powerful instruments for the shaping of society, individual consciousness, and knowledge. Municipal museums were popular places, with large numbers of visitors; but they were also quite fragile, chronically and sometimes acutely short of resources, struggling to achieve a professional staff base, and dependent on the whims of a small number of councillors and donors. They were local institutions with local priorities, and need to be seen as part of the machinery for contesting and negotiating class, status and interest claims in the Victorian town.