The seeds were sown for the establishment of a museum in the town with the founding of the Mechanics Institute in 1830. This was when Harrison Wilkinson, a surgeon in the Royal Navy and a native of Penrith, left in his will 'all the books comprising his library, all his coins, medals, and casts, for use of all the inhabitants of the town of Penrith for ever, without alienation by sale or otherwise'. When the Mechanics Institute was dissolved the collections were passed on to the Working Men's Reading Room. Those assets were in turn transferred to the Penrith Museum.
The Penrith Local Board of Health had adopted the Free Libraries and Museums Act in November 1881. This was the town's first municipal governing body. It was the forerunner of Penrith Urban District Council incorporated in 1974 into Eden District Council in local government reorganisation. This was the first public authority in Cumberland to do so. By 1883 the Penrith Free Public Library and Museum was duly established in the Working Men's Reading Room in Hunter Lane. At the opening the chairman of the Local Board said that he had no doubt the Museum would be 'a useful institution generally, and ... more particularly to the young people of the town.' That a significant amount of the Free Museum's original collection has survived to the present day is due in part to the local authority assuming the role of patron at this early stage in the Museum's history.
It is not coincidental that the Library and Museum came into being shortly after the establishment of the Penrith Literary and Scientific Society whose prospectus of July 1881 anticipated the idea of a Museum. Its President, Doctor Michael Waistell Taylor (1842-1892), a physician of repute in the town (and one of the founders and an early President of the Hunterian Medical Society) had been largely responsible for persuading the Local Board to adopt the Free Libraries and Museums Act. The interest and enthusiasm of many of the Society's members found a focus in the new development. It was in keeping with this convergence of interest that Dr Taylor became the Museum's first Honorary Curator. He was a keen amateur archaeologist and naturalist. He was author of The Old Manorial Halls of Westmorland and Cumberland. His herbarium collection is still preserved as part of the Museum's collections.
In 1894 the local historian, William Furness, informs us how 'the foundation of the Museum was made by the valuable geological collection of Vice-Admiral Wauchope of Dacre Lodge, presented to the town through Dr M W Taylor.' The condition attached was that they should receive suitable accommodation and be preserved for public use. Furness lists the contents of the Museum collection which in that year comprised not only the Wauchope bequest of 27 cases of geological specimens and the herbarium of British flora donated by Dr Taylor, but also archaeological finds including:
- A 'Celtic' stone axe found at Redhills
- Old coins
- Medallion plaster casts of celebrities
The list also includes ethnographic specimens, such as Maori female dresses and Red Indian implements of war, and an Egyptian mummy and case. The mummy was given to Darlington Museum in 1930. It was transferred in 1961 to the Oriental Museum at Durham University. This is where it is now on display. Also on loan at Durham is the collection of Oriental antiquities bequeathed to the Museum in 1955.
In 1906, supported with funding from the Carnegie Trust, the Library and Museum moved to the recently converted Penrith Town Hall in Corney Square. By then the role of Honorary Curator had passed to J. Charles Varty-Smith. He was a local gentleman described by his obituarist as 'possessed by taste and knowledge far above the ordinary' and a 'born collector, antiquary, entomologist, botanist and connoisseur of old china and rare and out-of-the-way objects of art'. A man of means and leisure, Varty-Smith was a pioneer researcher on old glass and a frequent contributor to illustrated magazines such as The Queen, Country Life, Home and Garden and The Connoisseur. He and his daughters made a number of important gifts to the Museum, such as the multure dishes used for collecting tolls at the town's market.
There were other notable contributors to the development of the Museum, including Father A. Desmit, a Belgian refugee during the First World War. He devoted much time to the making of models to illustrate crystal formation. Thomas Hay, Honorary Curator from 1931 to 1944 carried on this tradition of altruistic service as did others, such as William Lowe of Patterdale and, at a later date, W. Atkinson of Duke Street, Penrith.
In 1964 the Urban District Council handed over its library responsibilities to Cumberland County Council. The Museum was temporarily closed pending the finding of a new home for the collections. In December 1967 the announcement that Robinson's Church of England Infant School was to close heralded the Council's decision to acquire the building for the re-establishment of the Museum in Middlegate. Following the school's closure in April 1971 preparations were stepped up for the conversion of the building to a 'museum-cum-information-bureau', it being observed that 'since the opening of the M6 more and more people were staying in Penrith for longer periods'.
While the Information Centre came into being in the early 1970s and a small display of Museum artefacts was set up, it was not until February 1985 at an open meeting in the Town Hall that Councillor R I Porter, Chairman of the Museum Sub-Committee, outlined the proposals for the formal re-establishment of the Museum. The inaugural meeting of the Friends of the Museum was held on 5 March. On 9 July 1985 the Penrith Museum was officially re-opened to the public in Robinson's School. In 1988 Eden District Council resolved to undertake a scheme of major alterations and extensions to the building. By 1990 it had been completely renovated with additional office space and storage accommodation for the Museum. A grant from the Museums and Galleries Commission enabled the building of an environmentally controlled store. Further grants for the scheme were received from the North West Museums Service, English Heritage, Northern Arts and Cumbria County Council.
The newly refurbished Museum was officially opened by the playwright, Colin Welland, on 20 April 1990. In 1991 it was awarded Full Registered Status by the Museums and Galleries Commission. It became an MLA Accredited Museum in 2009. This was in recognition that it complies with the standards laid down with regard to its management, collections care and service provision.