The Manchester Museum

Open 7 days a week 10.00 to 5.00. Free.

Housed in a Victorian Gothic building – its towers and turrets scraping Manchester’s dark skies – Manchester Museum is a mass of passages, galleries, staircases and basements stuffed with all kinds of artefacts and oddities.

From cursed mummies to Egyptian statuettes that – apparently – move by themselves; from dinosaur skeletons to stuffed porcupines; from pinned butterflies to pickled alligators; from African masks to Babylonian writing tablets; the museum is home to an eccentric mix of objects that say much about Britain’s history of colonialism and industrialization, as well as the obsessions of Victorian society.

Stan the T-rex
PHOTOGRAPH BY David Castleton

And Victorian obsessions were many: the age of booming industry and commerce was also an anxious one. Scientific discoveries cast doubts on biblical narratives leading to a fascination with geology, fossils and the natural world. Colonialism stimulated an obsession with the cultures and histories of conquered peoples. Religious doubts and lives shortened by industrial pollution resulted in an elaborate obsession with all aspects of death and funerary customs.

Opened in 1888, Manchester Museum evolved out of donations from private collectors and it still has the feel of an enlarged ‘cabinet of curiosities’ – those eclectic collections of Victorian gentlemen fashionable in that era.

In Manchester, however, the world’s first industrial city, it was not the possessions of aristocrats or London gents, but rather those of cotton mill owners that went on to form the basis of the museum’s collections. Much of the impressive Egyptian collection, for instance, was donated by textile merchant Jesse Haworth in 1890.

Manchester Museum certainly has the dark allure of the Victorian collection of curiosities. There are endless objects acquired during the British Empire, creatures pinned – or stuffed and mounted – in cases, and artefacts linked to other Victorian manias such as the study of fossils and Ancient Egypt. The museum has a dusty and enthusiastically disordered charm, with occasional missing labels leaving visitors to fill gaps with their imaginations.

Even the architecture of the museum – located in the University District and a part of the University of Manchester – speaks strongly of the Victorian epoch, its delusions and dreams. Designed by Alfred Waterhouse – also responsible for Manchester’s splendid Town Hall and London’s Natural History Museum – the museum’s style is Gothic Revival. The building’s fairy-tale turrets and arched windows evoke the Victorians’ nostalgia for the innocent medieval world they felt existed before their age of spewing factory chimneys and imperial conquests.

Manchester Museum has a collection of around 4.5 million objects, mainly from the fields of archaeology, anthropology and natural history. Spread over four floors, and divided into 15 galleries, the museum sees around 430,000 visitors per year. Come with me as I take you up staircases, down into basements and through hushed corridors as we go on a brief exploration (a very Victorian word) of Manchester Museum.

Mummies, slave chains and swivelling statues: Discovering Archaeology and Egyptian Worlds

Head upstairs from the entrance hall and you’ll come across the Discovering Archaeology gallery. Here you can see Neanderthal stone age tools and ancient animal bones discovered in Derbyshire, bronze-age mining implements from Cheshire, and a facial reconstruction of the 2,0000-year-old Worsley Man, a body found preserved in a Manchester peat bog. The archaeology collection also includes Victorian and Edwardian toys lost in the boating lake of Manchester’s Whitworth Park, an iron-age gold neck-ring discovered in the nearby town of Burnley, and an iron-age slave chain from Kent, still in working order.

The adjacent Egyptian Worlds gallery is, however, the star in the museum’s crown. The museum’s collection of 18,000 Egyptian and Sudanese objects is one of the most important in Europe. It contains 20 human and 50 animal mummies, as well as artefacts from the temple in Thebes and two royal palaces. Here mummy cases loom behind glass, their bright colours undimmed by millennia.

One of the mummies is said to be cursed. Purchased in Egypt, the mummy – as was then fashionable – was kept in a well-to-do house as an object of display. Its inhabitants, however, had the growing suspicion the mummy was bringing bad luck. It was donated to the museum where – as far as we know – it hasn’t brought any ill-fortune since.

Some other famous Manchester mummies are the Two Brothers, the sons of a provincial governor buried together around 1,800 BC. These mummies have been unwrapped and are exhibited beneath the raised lids of their coffins.

You can see the mummy and coffin of Asru, a temple dancer who lived in Thebes around 700 BC., as well as mummies from Egypt’s Roman period, with portraits of the faces of the deceased – as was customary in that epoch – stuck onto the bandaged bodies.

The Egyptian World’s gallery contains artefacts from a town of pyramid builders, giving us an insight into everyday life in Ancient Egypt. These objects include – surprisingly modern-looking – jewellery, board games and everyday items like combs. Mummified animals are also on display, with fish and cats among the creatures preserved for the afterlife.

In 2013, the Egyptian Worlds gallery was the centre of a mystery when a ten-inch statuette started moving after being transferred to a new case. Time-lapse videos showed the statue – taken from the tomb of Neb-Senu, a man who died around 1,800 BC – slowly rotating through 180 degrees, apparently of its own accord. These revelations boosted visitor numbers and attracted paranormal investigators, but it turned out the rotation was due to vibrations from visitors’ feet and traffic on the road outside combined with friction caused by the statuette’s uneven base. A membrane was affixed to the bottom of the statue to prevent any further swivelling.

Monkey skeletons, moon meteorites and a stuffed platypus

The Fossils, Minerals and Meteorites gallery provides evidence of another Victorian obsession, fossil collecting, and most of its exhibits were acquired in latter half of the 19th century. Here you can see the fossil of a plesiosaur and a fossilized tree. The gallery takes you on a tour of 600 million years of natural history, during which you will encounter early bacteria, swamp forests and massive sea reptiles. There are 100,000 fossils in the museum’s collection, including fossilized algae from the very dawn of life.

The gallery boasts pieces of meteorite from Mars and the Moon that you can touch, but the star of this section has to be Stan the T-Rex. Stan is the life-sized cast of a t-rex skeleton found in South Dakota – the second-best preserved such skeleton ever discovered, with 199 bones, 58 teeth and wounds on the skull showing how Stan tangled with other dinosaurs.

One of the museum’s most intriguing galleries is Living Worlds. The gallery’s name is perhaps inappropriate as most of its residents are dead animals, stuffed and mounted. As you descend into this basement gallery, lines of tall cases confront you filled with creatures from every part of the world.

Famous inhabitants include a baby elephant, a polar bear, a gorilla with mouth open and arms swinging, and a duck-billed platypus. A huge python curls around a tree; a tiger rears and snarls. There’s also a red panda, a leopard and porcupine. The cases house some animals which are now extinct, such as the thylacine, a pouched doglike marsupial. Bones are on display too. A monkey skeleton swings in a tree while another case shows the skulls of an array of primates from lemurs to humans.

This gallery also boasts a whale skeleton suspended from its ceiling, the skull of Old Billy – the world’s longest-lived horse who made it to 62 – and a bird collected by one Charles Darwin.

Climb the stairs out of Living Worlds and on the balcony above you’ll find Nature’s Library. In this gallery, you can see pinned beetles, spiders and hand-sized butterflies, and cases inhabited by extinct birds. There are pressed and mounted plants – some collected on Darwin’s voyages – and specimens preserved in spirits, including a whole alligator.

Heading out of Nature’s Library, you come to the Vivarium. As its name suggests, this gallery is home to live animals, like snakes, chameleons and brightly coloured frogs. The Vivarium’s captive breeding programme seeks to protect endangered species, including the Costa Rican Leaf Frog, an amphibian almost extinct in the wild.

Elephant bones, Manchester moths and the perfect place for a gothic cappuccino

Another intriguing section is The Manchester Gallery, which explores links between the museum and the people of the city. This gallery contains the skeleton of the elephant Maharaja, a popular inhabitant of Manchester’s Belle Vue Zoo. When Maharaja joined the zoo, he became famous for walking all the way from Edinburgh with his keeper. In addition, this gallery houses the stuffed remains of Maude the Tiglon – a cross between a tiger and a lion – who also resided in Belle Vue.

Living Worlds with Tiger
PHOTOGRAPH BY David Castleton

Look out for the display on the peppered moth, a humble insect that provided proof of Darwin’s evolutionary theory. As industrialization got under way and Manchester’s chimneys disgorged more smoke, the moth became darker – darker-hued individuals were better camouflaged against the city’s increasing grime and therefore more likely to survive and pass their genes on.

Maharaja the elephant
PHOTOGRAPH BY David Castleton

Manchester Museum is certainly worth a visit. As well as housing a fascinating array of objects, it is an emporium giving us an insight into the imperialism, industrialization and various fixations that shaped Britain’s Victorian past.

If you need refreshment after a couple of hours of culture and history, the museum has a perfectly good café. I would, however, recommend Christies’ Bistro next door. In the same building as the museum, Christies’ is accessed via a spiral staircase lit by stained-glass windows. The staircase leads to a gothic room full of bookcases, portraits and busts – an atmospheric place to relax over cake and cappuccino.

David Castleton's literary gothic novel 'The Standing Water' is available on Amazon.

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David Castleton