It is easy to become a bit of a cultural snob when you live in London – some of the world’s best museums are on your doorstep, packed full of everything from Viking artefacts to the Elgin marbles and priceless masterpieces by Turner and Vermeer.
But get out of the capital and there are just as many amazing treasures to see. Head north to Manchester and you’ll find one of Britain’s best museums – the Manchester Museum. Manchester has a rich mercantile history, and it’s therefore not surprising that its museum owes its origins thanks to the collections of local businessman and cotton manufacturer John Leigh Phillips.
On his death in 1821 a band of wealthy businessmen bought his collections of books, art and natural history specimens, creating the Manchester Natural History Society. In 1868 the collections were passed to Owens College, which would eventually become the University of Manchester, and a new building to house the growing collections, designed by Alfred Waterhouse, was opened in 1890. The Manchester Museum continued to grow in the early 20th century, thanks in part to donations made by local grandee Jesse Haworth (1835-1921) who had a keen interest in Egyptology.
Today the Museum stretches over a number of historic buildings and modern extensions in the heart of the city and the university campus, and the varied collections have grown to over 6 million objects.
For me the Manchester Museum is sort of “Night at the Museum” come to life, and it must seem that way for wide-eyed children who walk through the entrance for the first time – a giant statue from Easter Island stands in the entrance foyer, the skeleton of a T-Rex (known affectionately as Stan) not far away. Walk up the wrought iron staircase and you’ll find the skeleton of a Mammoth lumbering towards you.
But of course my favourite galleries are the Egyptian ones, which range across the first floor. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the museum received many Egyptian objects through their support of excavation work by the Egypt Exploration Society, British School of Archaeology in Egypt and the Liverpool School of Archaeology.
Some of the museum’s objects were uncovered by Sir William Flinders Petrie (1853-1942), whose work was supported by Jesse Haworth. Howarth became enthralled by Egypt after a visit there in 1880. He eventually donated his personal collection of Egyptian antiquities to the Manchester Museum.
The Egypt & Sudan Department at Manchester includes over 16,000 objects, making it one of the largest Egyptian collections in the UK. There are statues, shabti, sculptures, and of course a few mummies too. There is also a granite column from a temple.
Never one to miss a Sekhmet, here too we find a lovely granodiorite bust of the goddess, found at Bubastis, with finely carved mane and crowned with a sun-disc (partially broken) and uraeus.
However, the objects I am most drawn to are the smaller, more personal items – a bead bracelet, perfume bottle, a shabti with a prayer for the afterlife. It is these small, intimate objects that bring us closer to people in the past.
When it comes to Egypt, people might initially think of gold treasures, like those from Tutankhamun’s tomb, as the most “wonderful things”. But, instead it is these little objects that are the real treasures. They offer a window onto the people and places of the distant past, and can often lead to a better understanding of who we are today.
So, if you are fascinated by ancient Egypt or by the wider history of this magnificent planet of ours, head to the Manchester Museum. You will find wonders, splendour and treasures, and you are certain to discover something to inspire you.
by Tara Draper-Stumm
** For details on the museum’s collections and opening times visit www.museum.manchester.ac.uk
** the author wishes to thank Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt & Sudan at Manchester Museum, and Joanna Smith of Historic England, for assistance with my research visit to Manchester.