WHEN William Beamont laid the foundation stone for Warrington Museum in 1855 he wanted its halls to be filled with ‘wonders of nature’ and ‘objects of curiosity’.

Now the museum and art gallery is closer to the first Mayor of Warrington’s original vision after opening the refurbished Cabinet of Curiosities exhibition.

It was made possible thanks to a £672,500 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to transform the old Bird Room.

More than 80 colourful birds have been primped and preened and displayed alongside more exotic creatures like the giant anteater in a new interpretation of the old gallery’s menagerie.

In William Beamont’s day, wonders of the natural world were kept by wealthy individuals and hidden from view.

But he wanted the museum’s collection to be ‘a just source of pride and satisfaction to every inhabitant of Warrington’.

Derek Dick, Warrington Museum operations manager, said: “William Beamont wanted the museum to be for the people.

“It wasn’t an elitist or exclusive club but part of the community and that’s what we want this new gallery to be. The ideas behind it are the same.”

The idea for the Cabinet of Curiosities came about in 2007 when the museum was celebrating the 150th anniversary of the exhibition room.

Janice Hayes, manager of Warrington Museum, said: “We felt it was a key moment to raise the profile of one of the earliest public museums in the country.

“Museum professionals have often described this building as a museum of museums and we knew that Warrington people like its quirky character.

“Then in 2011 we finally found out our application was successful just as we were finishing the redevelopment of six other galleries.

“So when I broke the good news to the museum team that possibly explained the slightly muted reaction.

“It was bit like when Oliver Hardy looks at Stan Laurel and says this is another fine mess you’ve got us into.”

So 18 months of hard work followed, including demolishing a structure which concealed the room’s light well and opening up the lantern light which had not been seen since the 1960s.

Old favourites like the Woolston seal, which had been in storage during the restoration, have made a return.

In 1908, the grey seal swam up the Mersey and entered Paddington Lock.

It was shot and mounted in the museum and brought in 14,000 extra visitors that year.

Also on display is the virginal, an early keyboard similar to a harpsichord dating back to 1684.

It was restored for a recital by Lymm High School pupils and was the last one made in England.

A new piece of work by taxidermist Polly Morgan has also been created especially for the opening.

Meanwhile, the project has enabled the museum to bring in nine honorary curators to tell stories from Warrington’s past.

For example, Maria Walker’s exhibit is about Warrington’s own ‘Mr Selfridge’ William Hodgkinson who ran ‘Warrington’s Premier Department Store’ in Bridge Street.

Janice added: “A cabinet of curiosities can mean two things.

“It can mean the bizarre and there were some bizarre moments in this project.

“I remember looking for a member of the team and they said he’s in the dark room with the mermaid “It also means a chamber of wonders and looking at this room now at the breadth of the collections here, I hope that it’s going to inspire present day visitors just as it inspired Lewis Carroll when he came to the museum in the 1840s.

“So on behalf of the museum I would like to thank the Heritage Lottery Fund for making this scheme possible.”

It is hoped that the Cabinet of Curiosities, which was once the space of Warrington School of Art between 1860 and 1884, will increase the museum’s visitor numbers from 80,000 to 100,000 a year.

- As part of the celebrations, the museum will be open this Sunday for a family fun day from 1pm to 3pm