Bolton Museum and Art Gallery

This wonderful place is full of contradictions and contrasts. We arrive at the Museum and encounter the first. In the heart of this northern English town, steeped in the hangover of an industrial past and full of salt of the earth folk, lies the decidedly French sounding Le Mans Crescent. The road is laid with the old traditional cobbles, yet the long, curved building exudes grandiosity from its sandstone façade. We climb the steps and are dwarfed by two great columns, beckoning us to enter… and if steps aren’t your thing, a gentle ramp will bring you to the same conclusion.

Pass through the double doors and find yourself in the embrace of four grand stone staircases sweeping left, right, up, and down. Each draws you near, ‘come this way, see what I have to show you’ they may as well whisper. The foyer seems unchanged from the 1930’s, tall ceilinged with a jewel-coloured chandelier, miles above. The one concession to modernity being the passenger lift which services all three floors.

Looking back to the entrance
PHOTOGRAPH BY Hazel Mcguinness

One would usually access the Central Library direct from the foyer, but at the time of the visit, August 2023, it is under renovation. We are promised a modernized library in 2024, albeit sympathetic of the 1930’s structure, with child friendly areas and a café, too.

PHOTOGRAPH BY Hazel Mcguinness

A creature of habit, I will take you to the left and upwards. We embark on the staircase. The huge walls on both ascents had in the past held enormous oil paintings, portraits of Bolton’s illustrious benefactors. Now, many more faces adorn the walls, the Faces of Bolton; the great, the good, the ordinary, all smile down on you as you begin your journey.

Faces on the staircase
PHOTOGRAPH BY Hazel Mcguinness

We alight onto the landing, natural light pours in from the atrium above and here is a very well stocked gift shop, seemingly acres of tabletops festooned with trinkets, keepsakes, and souvenirs, all presided over by a Stegosaurus skeleton (cast), suspended above.

Passing through the temptations, we are in another foyer of sorts. The suspended skull of a Tyrannosaurus invites you to choose a pathway: Bolton’s History, Bolton’s Egypt, or Bolton’s Art. As ever, we choose the left portal and enter Bolton’s History.

Upper Foyer
PHOTOGRAPH BY Hazel Mcguinness

Step through from the stone floor of the foyer and you will find that all the galleries have kept the original wooden parquet flooring. The smell, too, is that of the Museum; old paper, preservatives… as they say in Le Mans, a certain je ne sais quoi that informs you that you are In A Museum. The parquet softens your footsteps and adds to the reverence.

Your first encounter is the only surviving Spinning Mule. This beast of burden is not an animal, but a cotton spinning machine invented by Samuel Crompton in 1779. This is Bolton’s industrial past. In 1929 Bolton was at its peak, one of the foremost centres for cotton spinning in the world. The town boasted 216 cotton mills and Crompton’s Spinning Mule is credited with revolutionizing textile production. This gallery charts the rise and fall of the industry, and the people of the town who were intrinsic to it. Throughout, there are areas of engagement for children.

The lozenge shaped room is double height, for a mezzanine level encircles us. We can cross to the end of the room and another wide stone staircase will bear us upwards to more delights. Thoughtfully, a passenger lift is available too.

Stairs to the mezzanine
PHOTOGRAPH BY Hazel Mcguinness

Once on the mezzanine we encounter the natural history section. Here there are taxidermy examples of various mammals, birds, and fish, all displayed in well-lit dioramas and interestingly signposted. The structural columns spaced along the displays bear the skulls of antelope, deer, and other antlered creatures long past, whilst at the end of the level is the be-tusked head of an African Bull elephant. Not just flora and fauna are on display, there is also a geological section. This section, whilst not as macabre as the natural history section, is all the more interesting because of its origin. The Central Library’s first noted acquisition is not a book, but a fossil sample. In the 1880’s the library received donations of geological materials which grew to a good collection of some scientific merit, and it was this collection which formed the very first Museum in Bolton!

The mezzanine
PHOTOGRAPH BY Hazel Mcguinness

Just off the mezzanine level is a recent addition to this Grade II listed building, an extension. It seamlessly adjoins the main gallery, fitted out with parquet floor too. The space is a changeable exhibition area, currently showcasing Bolton’s Town Hall.

We leave Bolton’s History through the door we arrived and now turn towards Bolton’s Egypt.

This is my favourite part of the Museum. I will hold you at the door whilst I give you a little background…

Taking the collection as a whole, and as reported by the Museum’s website, it is “arguably one of the most important in a British local authority museum (i.e. a non-National, non-University Museum), and numbers around 12,000 objects from over 65 sites in Egypt. Unlike comparable collections in the UK, the majority of the objects are excavated and thus retain full provenance information. This makes the collection of particular interest to researchers and gives scope for enhanced interpretation for the public. The collection is recognised as being of international significance.”

Already, the prospect of viewing this collection is exciting! But let us add to that more of the provenance of the collection and its ties to the cotton industry, which has woven itself through the town’s history. A large donor to the collection was the Egypt Exploration Fund (now the Egypt Exploration Society). A local cotton mill owner’s daughter, Annie Barlow, was appointed the Local Secretary for the EEF in the 1880’s. She was charged with raising awareness and funds for the EEF’s ongoing exploration, conservation, and research in Egypt. As a fund raiser and excavator, she was allowed a share of the finds that were made, as was the accepted and legal practice at the time. Annie requested that her share be sent to The Chadwick Museum, forerunner to the Bolton Museum of today. Through this connection, the collection grew, with further donations from the Petrie Museum, the Welcome Trust, Tamworth Castle, and even local people. An obvious focal point was of textiles, so Bolton can now boast a collection of over 6000 pieces of Ancient Egyptian textiles.

You have been held in suspense for long enough, let us enter the first of five rooms dedicated to Egypt. This smaller room introduces us to our obsession with Ancient Egypt. Of course, we are drawn to treasure like moths to a flame, so we are greeted by a golden faced mummy mask. Also on display, both with artifacts and in digital media, we look at the influence of Ancient Egypt through design, popular culture and even forgeries.

Egypt life
PHOTOGRAPH BY Hazel Mcguinness

Next, we step into one of the most spectacular Egyptian displays you will ever see. Along a gallery superbly lit by both natural and electric light are five crystal clear glass arches, all filled with objects and animals depicting life in the Nile valley. This unique display allows the visitor almost 360° viewpoints of the artifacts. Between each arch, on the walls are masterfully produced facts, diagrams, and hieroglyphs, all curated in such a way as to be engaging and entertaining to all ages. Each display is as interesting as the last, with pottery, statuary, jewellery, everyday items, even a life-sized replica of the bust of Nefertiti. The feeling is immersive.

As we reach the end of the gallery, a doorway awaits. It is dark in there, and gives the feeling of passing from daytime into night – which is exactly the point! Just like the journey the sun God Ra makes every day on his solar boat; we leave behind the brightness of life and enter the dark land of the dead.

Egypt death
PHOTOGRAPH BY Hazel Mcguinness

The superbly clever lighting of this next room may give the immediate impression of darkness, but ambient light and spotlights highlight artifacts associated with the funerary practices of the Ancient Egyptians. There are numerous shabtis, amulets, tomb goods and a coffin. The ceiling is lowered and gives the impression of a starry sky. In the far corner of the room is another door. Again, the clever use of space and light gives nothing away as to the destination of the short corridor, although you are drawn closer by soft music evocative of Ancient Egypt. We enter, with bated breath….

Here, the pièce de résistance; a breathtaking full-scale replica of the burial chamber of Tuthmosis III.

For those who have not visited the tomb of Tuthmosis III, I can reliably inform you that the only difference is the suffocating heat and humidity of the original! Allow yourself to be transported to the Valley of the Kings as you admire the faithfully replicated wall scenes, which depict the Pharaoh’s journey through the afterlife. For interpretation, every five minutes, an animation is projected onto one of the walls which gives an explanation of the purpose of the decorations, in a modern and utterly enthralling style.

Egypt tomb
PHOTOGRAPH BY Hazel Mcguinness

At the end of the chamber there lies the mummified body of ‘The Unknown Man’. He is displayed with the coffin in which he was presented to the Museum. Unlike the majority of the objects, this man was donated from a private collection and so is un-provenanced. The coffin did not originally belong to the man, whom scientific research has deemed to be an elite gentleman from the 19th Dynasty, unlikely to be related to Tuthmosis III.

We leave the tomb as if reborn into the bright sun-drenched gallery of Egyptian life, another genius move by the designers of the gallery, as it mimics the journey of the sun God Ra.

The final Bolton’s Egypt room is set out as a leafy garden with a doll’s house. It invites you to relax and process all you have just experienced while gently informing you of the history of the collection.

The final space to visit on this floor is the art gallery. A spacious and bright room, it houses exhibitions which are changed every two months, currently showcasing the finest works in the Museum’s collection.

Art gallery
PHOTOGRAPH BY Hazel Mcguinness

Just when you think your adventure has come to an end, it is time to descend the grand staircase, not stopping at the entrance but going deeper, on to the basement. The Museum’s last delightful offering is the aquarium!

As we reach the foot of the stairs you notice how the natural lighting on the floors above was put to such excellent use. Apart from public facilities, there are two entrances. One is not usually open to the public but contains a lecture theatre. It is used by Bolton Archaeology and Egyptology Society for lectures and is a fabulous room, with tier seating and a stage. If you get the opportunity to attend, you must! But we are here for the fish!

PHOTOGRAPH BY Hazel Mcguinness

The aquarium consists of a corridor and one large columned room, all containing inset tanks. The fish on display are from all over the world, representing each continent. The signage is informative and highlights conservation concerns and solutions. The aquarium has been in situ since the opening of the museum, previously housing only local freshwater fish who were easily replaced. It now has around the clock caretakers who are on hand to speak to visitors.

And now our visit is complete! If you have the energy, go around again and be enthralled once more – or alternatively, once you step out of the building into the heart of the town centre there are innumerable amenities, cafes and pubs within a minute or two’s walk. But as you leave, glance back at the building itself and marvel at the beautiful architecture. This most stunning of Bolton’s roads can even be seen on screen, appearing in such big budget dramas as ‘It’s a Sin’ and ‘Peaky Blinders’. This building is as much a part of the Museum as just being its house. The architects, Bradshaw Glass and Hope, were the builders of many of the cotton mills in Bolton. It was the introduction of new techniques involving steel and concrete which allowed them to become multidisciplinary and branch out into civic buildings. In fact, one of their alumni, who was apprenticed to Mr. Bradshaw himself, the architect John Parkinson, went on to design and build Los Angeles City Hall in California!

Thank you for joining me on this visit to my favourite Museum. You can find their opening times and exhibition details at their website Entrance is free and the site is fully accessible.

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Hazel Mcguinness

My name is Hazel, I live in Wigan, England. I love visiting all kinds of Museums, but my passion is for Egyptology. I am the secretary for Horus Egyptology Society and EES Local Ambassador for Wigan. I love to explore ancient temples and tombs, and am at my happiest studying hieroglyphs.