Wednesday, 25 April 2012
Um, so what exactly IS a "Mechanics Institute"? - by Maureen Mann
I’m going to talk this week on a similar theme to Patsy’s blog last week: how different interests fit together. I am a committee member of the Launceston branch of the Australian Decorative and Fine Arts Society and have taken on compiling information about the Launceston Mechanics Institute to be included in an ADFAS publication. There’s plenty of information so it will be a matter of condensing it to a manageable size.
Did you know that the libraries of the Mechanics Institutes in Tasmania became the original core collection for our State Library? The natural history collection of our wonderful Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery here in Launceston had its beginnings in the Launceston Mechanics Institute acquisitions. What was the role of the Mechanics Institutes?
According to Wikipedia, they “were educational establishments formed to provide adult education, particularly in technical subjects, to working men.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mechanics%27_Institutes). They held lectures and classes, especially in technical subjects, for working people. The first one, established in 1827, in Australia was in Hobart, established only six years after the movement was founded in Scotland and less than 25 years after Hobart’s European settlement. In Launceston, the Institute was established in 1842 and under the auspices of John West, £8000 was raised for a new building. http://www.utas.edu.au/library/companion_to_tasmanian_history/M/Mechanics%20Institutes.htm
Major cities in the English-speaking world developed their own Mechanics Institutes organisations. There are many still in existence: including as libraries, parts of universities and higher education colleges, theatres, and museums. Smaller versions sprang up in many towns, not all with the same name but all with the aim of helping the working classes. Some of the buildings have been absorbed into the public structure. Others, like Launceston have disappeared or been converted to very different uses.
The original plans for the purpose-built Launceston building included a reading room, museum, laboratory, class room and a lecture hall capable of seating 700 people. Sadly this building was demolished in 1971 to make way for the ‘new’ State Library building and what is now Civic Square. But other less grand buildings remain throughout the state reflecting the benevolent aims. We have a lot to be thankful to these far-sighted men (and women) who encouraged this movement. Our museums and libraries are still venues for learning and teaching.