On a gloriously sunny saturday, I persuaded my husband to drive me through the Essex countryside and into Suffolk. Our destination was the Ipswich Museum, a delightful red-brick and terracotta museum that was built in 1880. Ipswich is not the first place you think of when searching for Egyptian antiquities, but interesting collections of Egyptian objects (some small, some large) are scattered around the British Isles. From Norwich to Bristol and Newcastle to Glasgow, there are countless collections of Egyptian antiquities to be discovered.
Many of the Egyptian objects to be seen in Ipswich and elsewhere were brought back as souvenirs by affluent Victorians who visited Egypt. Local resident EH Fison donated 30 objects, collected in Luxor and Giza in 1899. Ipswich also received objects from Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson, best know for the famous bronze cat he gave to the British Museum. Gayer-Anderson lived in Suffolk in the beautiful village of Lavenham. Although Howard Carter was a Norfolk native, he too made a contribution to the Ipswich Museum collections.
However, it wasn’t the antiquities that amazed us when we arrived at the museum – instead there was a collective gasp of wonder from my husband and I as we stepped into the natural history exhibition, set within the magnificent double height central hall.
It was on the one hand horrific and magnificent – a vast collection of bizarre animal taxidermy, from birds and monkeys to a giraffe in a glass and wood case, along with a model of a very wooly mammoth! These sorts of natural history collections were terribly popular in the 19th century, mainly for scientific study, although the labels on some of the exhibits made it clear that a number of the animals were “trophies” of big-game hunters. While no one would condone this sort of “collecting” today, it was wonderful to see that such a historic collection had survived the age of political correctness and is still being used for educational purposes. The children that filled the museum on the day we visited were simply fascinated by these displays, and if these animals can enlighten people about nature, animal species and the environment, then continue to serve a useful purpose.
Sadly though, one of the most popular and best-loved exhibits, a stuffed rhinoceros affectionately named Rosie, has recently had her horn cut off by burglars. Rhinos have been brought to the brink of extinction in the wild, mainly due to their horns being used in Chinese medicine, and poachers can make as much as £30,000 for a single rhino horn. Museums across Europe have seen a spate of such attacks in recent years as criminals look to cash in on the Chinese desire for “medicines” made from exotic animal parts including rhino horn and tiger bones. A large amount of arsenic was employed in the taxidermy process in the 19th century, so the disgraceful buyers of this horn could well pay with their lives for their crime.
Even without her horn, Rosie continues to teach valuable lessons about endangered species. In her damaged state she also highlights the threats to our museums and historic buildings from petty criminals who think nothing of destroying our cultural heritage in the pursuit of quick cash (whether its stealing lead from church roofs or elegantly carved chimneypieces from historic buildings).
Having been pleasantly surprised by the natural history collections, we sauntered upstairs in search of Egypt, and found a marvellous little collection. The entrance to the Egyptian Rooms is guarded by a standing statue of Sekhmet, on loan from the British Museum. It was this great lady we had come to see, in my quest to see as many of the British Museum statues as possible (some are on loan in the USA, so I might not get there).
Although she is carved from black granodiorite, flecks of red and silver in the stone enliven the whole, and she would have sparkled faintly in the Egyptian sun. In this case the sun disc is clearly part of the single block of stone from which the statue was carved, and has not been added later as in some examples. Beyond the Sekhmet is a beautifully laid out collection of objects. The collection has been designed for the enjoyment of children, so the labels are simple, and the corridors leading from the main rooms are brightly painted with Egyptian gods, giving the impression you are travelling into a tomb.
In fact, there is a room laid out as if it was a real tomb, with a brightly painted sarcophagus containing a mummy, canopic jars, and examples of grave goods and amulets. Children (or smaller adults like me) can enter the room via an arched tunnel at ground level, painted to look like sand, so they can imagine what it was like to be the first to enter a newly discovered tomb. On the wall a video of a CT scan of the mummy gives a unique view inside the intact wrappings, and there is a delightful cartoon book explaining the process of mummification.
Different types of objects, from games to everyday objects, are beautifully displayed in new, well-lit cases. Images of tomb scenes, showing the Egyptians and how they lived, complement these displays and help show children how certain objects were used by the Egyptians. The subject of death is ever-present, but it not morbid or scary.
While the collection is small, I think this is one of the best Egyptian displays I have ever encountered. It is informative, without being overly academic, and fun, without being silly. The integration of images of daily life in Ancient Egypt, next to actual objects that can be seen in the tomb paintings, brings the objects to life – you can imagine them as things that were used for work or in religious rituals, or that were worn or cherished by someone long ago. There is also a good use of interactive displays, placed at a child’s sight level, and reproductions of objects and different materials so they can touch and feel things too.
The Ipswich Museum’s Egyptian Rooms bring Ancient Egypt to life and make it both interesting and understandable to everyone. It may have been designed with children in mind, but my husband and I were having as much fun as the children that were wandering around the exhibits.
In these times of budget cuts and closures, it’s wonderful to see a small museum valued and nurtured by the local council. If you find yourself in Suffolk, then visit this little jewel of a museum – you will not be disappointed.