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Great North Museum: Hancock

Our museum is the only natural history museum in the north east of England and following a £26 million redevelopment is one of the region’s top tourist attractions and must-see venues, with nearly 1/2 million visits a year.

GNM: Hancock © Jane Brown

At the Great North Museum: Hancock you can discover a fascinating range of animals, fossils, minerals and ethnographic items from the NHSN collection housed in a beautifully restored 19th-century building in the centre of Newcastle upon Tyne. To go on a virtual tour click here, or to read more about some of the objects in the collection click here.

Highlights of the museum include major displays showing the wonder and diversity of the animal and plant kingdoms, spectacular objects from the Ancient Greeks and mummies from Ancient Egypt, a planetarium and a life-size T-Rex dinosaur skeleton.

The Living Planet display houses hundreds of creatures and by using a mixture of touch screen technology and hands-on experience, visitors can investigate these animals and find out where they live and how they survive in such extreme places as the arctic and desert.

Star objects include type specimens of fossil amphibians (Magalocephalus and Pholiderpeton) known as the Newsham Beasts, a Giant Japanese Spider Crab and Wandering Albatross mounted by John Hancock, a Moa skeleton and excellent Permian fish fossils.

The museum also has a major exhibition space where large-scale temporary exhibitions and events are held and a galleria to display local art.

For more information about visiting the museum and things to see and do please click here.

Museum History

The museum was built by the Society in the 19th century to house its growing collection of important natural history and ethnographic specimens and artefacts. It was opened as the New Museum of Natural History in 1884. In 1890 the well-known North East naturalist and Society member John Hancock died. He had been instrumental in creating the museum and so it was re-named the Hancock Museum in honour of John and his brother Albany.

During the Second World War, the Society had to make special arrangements to protect the museum and its collections from bombing. You can read about the Hancock Museum at War by following this link to our archives section.

After the Second World War, NHSN was finding it increasingly difficult to raise the funds to run and curate the museum and maintain the ageing building, let alone make essential improvements. Various ideas were put forward, including that of selling some of the ethnographic collection. Kings College (Newcastle University) came to the rescue and in 1960 an agreement was reached with the Society for a 99-year lease of the museum and the collections. Under this agreement, Newcastle University is responsible for caring for the building and collections. Since 1992 the University has contracted Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums to manage the museum on their behalf.

By the start of the 21st century, the Hancock Museum was in need of major investment to improve its visitor facilities and its dated permanent displays. Access was difficult for wheelchair users, parents with buggies or anyone who found steep steps hard to climb. The glass roof of the building was over 100 years old and in constant need of repair and the original heating system could no longer provide the sort of environment which the collections require.

Newcastle University led an ambitious project to redevelop the museum to make it a showcase for the North East in the 21st century. £26 million of funding was secured to renovate the old building, create a new extension and bring into the museum some of the collections from the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (SANT) that were previously held in the Shefton Museum. A new storage facility was also created in the basement of the Discovery Museum to house over 500,000 items that are not on public display.

The Hancock Museum closed its doors to the public in April 2006 and was transformed into the Great North Museum: Hancock, which re-opened in May 2009.

NHSN still owns the Great North Museum: Hancock and its collections are on show there. We also have our offices and library in the building. The Society plays a role in the museum as a member of the Great North Museum Board and we work closely with Newcastle University and Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

If you would like to study or learn more about the museum, its collections and its history the Society has published several papers and we hold a fantastic treasure trove of information, architectural plans and stories in our library and archives, located on the 2nd floor of the museum.