Leeds City Museum. The building was originally designed by Cuthbert Brodrick to house Leeds Mechanics’ Institute in 1865 before being home to the Leeds Civic Theatre in 1939 and Leeds City Museum in 2008. ©Eve Hartley 2015

Leeds City Museum. The building was originally designed by Cuthbert Brodrick to house Leeds Mechanics’ Institute in 1865 before being home to the Leeds Civic Theatre in 1939 and Leeds City Museum in 2008. ©Eve Hartley 2015

The Impact of the Mechanics’ Institute Movement on Art, Design and Culture in the North of England

The objectives of the mechanics’ institutes evolved from the necessity to educate and instruct working people in the trades that they practised, in order to promote advances to industry, whilst simultaneously providing the working classes with an opportunity for ‘moral and intellectual self-improvement’.  Since the inception of the movement in the early nineteenth century academics have disputed the degree as to which the movement fulfilled its original purpose. This research contributes to the debate from an alternative perspective and, instead of analysing the impact of the mechanics’ institute movement as a whole, charts the specific influence of the movement on art, design and culture in the North of England. In contrast to previous studies which often address the movement’s impact before 1851, this research highlights the movement’s cultural legacy beyond 1851, to the present, as it continues to shape the public’s contemporary relationship with culture. The mechanics’ institutes’ collections and exhibitions formed the basis for Britain’s earliest public libraries and museums and inspired the Great Exhibition of 1851.  Furthermore, the mechanics’ institutions’ purpose built buildings continue to provide public venues for educational and cultural activities. This research will explore how the general public and members of the mechanics’ institutes demonstrated a desire to expand their cultural knowledge alongside developing their practical industrial skills. The mechanics’ institutes responded to this demand by providing public resources for cultural development, initially in the form of exhibitions of industry, art and culture. By illustrating how the movements’ legacy continues to influence public, popular and urban culture, this thesis aims to encourage a further debate by asking the question: Why is the role of the mechanics’ institute movement, in shaping cultural identity, so often neglected? Some of the key heritage issues explored in this research project are:

– The heritage of Universities that evolved from Mechanics’ Institutes, which predates many traditional ‘Red Brick’ Universities.
– How the Mechanics’ Institutes’ collections formed some of the earliest public heritage collections in museums and libraries.
– Exploration of why the Mechanics’ Institute Movement does not feature more prominently in current narratives of British art and heritage and how these could be challenged.


I am a Heritage Consortium PhD candidate based at the University of Huddersfield. My broader research interests include the relationship between the power and influence of cultural institutions and the influence of institutional narratives on the public’s perception of their own heritage. Having recently completed an Art and Design MRes course at Liverpool John Moores University I gained a Pass with Distinction and received the Faculty of Arts, Professional and Social Studies MRes Award for most meritorious performance. My MRes thesis also focused on the impact of the mechanics’ institute movement on art, design and culture, however focused specifically on the North West region of England.

Prior to this I graduated from the BA (Hons) History of Art and Museum Studies course in 2013 with a First Class Honours Degree. Whilst studying at undergraduate level I was fortunate to secure a Susan Cotton Travel Award in 2012 which allowed me to travel around Norway and Iceland in order to explore Scandinavian attitudes and approaches to curating their heritage. My practical experience includes working as an assistant curator at the Liverpool Art Fair in 2012 and 2013. I have also been a project assistant on the Homotopia exhibitions ‘England’s Erotic Dreaming’ (2013) and ‘Germ Free Adolescence’ (2013) in association with the LJMU Special Collections, for which I also created an original artwork.

These experiences and the opportunities they have afforded me have been a direct result of attending Liverpool School of Art and Design and being part of the Heritage Consortium and this fuels my investigation into adult art and design education and the working classes. All seven of the Heritage Consortium Universities can trace their roots back to Mechanics’ Institutes and technical colleges.

Currently I am working towards promoting the cultural legacy of the Mechanics’ Institute movement by working with Heritage Consortium partners to produce a touring exhibition. I will also be speaking in the New Researchers Forum at the Urban History Conference at the University of Wolverhampton in March.

Twitter: @EveAlexaHartley


Professor Barry Doyle, University of Huddersfield, Dr Martyn Walker, University of Huddersfield, and Professor Ysanne Holt, Northumbria University