The museum was opened on 5 November 1861 by Richard Owen, the founder of the Natural History Museum. Its first displays consisted of natural history specimens, the town’s art collection, and various items collected from around the world by local residents. The early museum soon outgrew the Pavilion and the town authorities made ambitious plans to create a larger and more professional museum.
In 1873 Brighton Museum moved to its present site, along with the town’s public library. Although it occupies land that was formerly used as part of George IV’s stable complex, the building was built especially for the museum — indeed, it was one of the first purpose built museums in England.
One of its founders was Henry Willett, who lent – and later donated – his collection of Popular Pottery to the museum, where it can still be seen. Willett had made his fortune in brewing, and was not only an avid collector, but a passionate supporter of museums. Willett’s example of generosity and participation has been followed with donations and legacies from many local residents over the years.
A key figure in the museum’s development was Henry Roberts, director of both Brighton’s museum and library. Under his leadership, Brighton Museum developed an international outlook, and curated exhibitions of art from many countries across Europe. His greatest success was a 1910 exhibition of French Art that featured works by Monet, Cezanne, Degas, Matisse, Gaugin and other leading artists.
Although a classic Victorian town museum, Brighton Museum continued to attract visitors during the 20th century. One popular souvenir that could be purchased by visitors was a book of 12 ‘real photographs’ of the museum’s collections
At the turn of the millennium, Brighton Museum was transformed thanks to a £10 million redevelopment. The entrance was moved from Church Street to the Royal Pavilion garden, and its galleries were redesigned with new interpretation. Improved access was provided for disabled visitors, and an Education Pavilion was constructed for teaching purposes.