Monday, 20 September 2010

Mummies, mammals and other animals

I heard that the mammals gallery at the Manchester Museum was soon to close for a refit, so it gave me an excuse to visit one of my favourite Manchester places.

The museum is part of the University of Manchester and combines a number of different collections, but is best known for animals and mummies.

The building on Oxford Road is hard to miss. It was designed by Alfred Waterhouse, who also designed the Natural History museum in London, and many other fine buildings, and opened in 1888.

The entrance on Oxford Road is now closed and houses a large Japanese spider crab. It’s well known to many students who first spot it on the way home after a night of revelry as the crab is well lit. There’s even a Facebook group, ‘Manchester Museum Crab Appreciation Society’ (800+members) with an assortment of amusing photos.

The newer entrance is in a courtyard further down the road, allowing improved access, better visitor services and a rather good gift and book shop.

Currently outside the entrance is a wooden structure. It’s the ‘Reflective Room’, a collaboration with architecture students.

We'll start at Rocks and Minerals. The old entrance used to be here, and this part of the museum can be easy to miss.   If you are looking for meteorites you probably passed them, as they are part-way up the stairs or missed them completely if you arrived in the lift.

Wandering past the rocks, you enter Pre-Historic Life. The T-Rex is a copy, and he’s called Stan (Edit: Stan is female!?). This area has had a good clean and there seems to be a lot more natural light too, but not much interest in the fossilized tree.

The Animal life galleries are the most popular part of the museum. Floor 1 has the mammals including the popular tiger and the (according to the Museum) mis-labelled Polar Bear.

I’ve been to this section many times over the years, and always enjoy a wander around the stuffed animals and exhibits. It is looking a bit tired now, although for me this is part of the charm, but it’s now closed until 2011 and will reopen next year as the Living Planet gallery ‘Looking at issues such as habitat loss, extinction and climate change’.

The refit also is planned to show more of the original architecture of the building.

I hope the quirky element is still maintained, the skull of the ’worlds oldest horse’ (62) and Mrs Potter’s cow, the first stuffed animal in the collection and still looking surprised after over 170 years.

Next floor up is insects and birds. My first time here when I was a child was a bit scary, peeking over the display cabinets to see the creepy-crawlies!. You’ll find some scraps of dodo bones here too.

You can also get a closer look at the sperm whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling.

Next floor up is now a resource and play centre, with a fairly sad looking greenhouse. If you think creepy-crawlies are scary, this area used to have glass jars and displays of animals, and bits of animals, preserved in formaldehyde.

Going back down to floor 2, there’s a section with real live reptiles and amphibians. This is always a popular area, although some days you  stare into a seemingly empty vivarium, others you’ll spot a lot of frogs and lizards. I’m certain it has the laziest snake in the world, It looks like it was in the same place on a branch as my visit a year ago.

Walking across the bridge, you end up in Mediterranean Archeology section, then through to the Money section.

A quick trip downstairs and you are confronted with an elephant skeleton. We'll come back to that later, but behind the elephant is Living Cultures and Archery, with a wide selection of masks, dolls and bows, and some costumes.

Heading past the elephant again and to the right, we enter Ancient Egypt, another firm favourite of mine. The gallery is full of Egyptian artifacts small and large, including a stone statue of Bes, that always amused the Madchester crowd, and of course, a lot of mummies.

Some of the mummies have been covered ion white sheets to promote a discussion about how (or if) we should show human remains. It’s caused a fair bit of discussion and criticism in local newspapers. Personally, I prefer to see mummies as they are, but it seems a good idea to have these discussions and try different ways of presenting a collection.

The cat photo artifact is only included as it looks a lot like my  Persian cat Winnie.

I’m a little less happy about the 2008/9 exhibition ‘Lindow Man. A Bog Body Mystery’. It was great to see Lindow Man back in the north-west, but I didn’t take to the minimal chipboard heavy room, and Care Bear posters outside and a route through the exhibition that could miss out actually seeing Lindow Man  It went on to win a bunch of innovation awards.

After enjoying the life and death of early Egypt, it’s back the the elephant skeleton, and although a recent return to the museum, in the Manchester gallery, it’s a welcome sight. The gallery explains some of the history of the museum, but the elephant is the main attraction here, and he’s rather special.

His name is Maharajah, and I have a book about him, ‘The Elephant Who Walked To Manchester’ by David Barnaby. Maharajah was sold in 1872 and walked with his keeper Lorenzo Lawrence from Edinburgh to Manchester’s Belle Vue Zoo.

I first heard about Maharajah in an online discussion that went something like this; “Did you know there’s an elephant buried in Didsbury

Manchester Museum is a wonderful place that like most museums only shows a small amount of what’s available in storage. It’s going to go through a number of refurbishments over the next few years, so go see it before and after.

The next temporary exhibition is China: Journey to the East, from Sept 25 2010 to 26 June 2011. It will almost certainly be well worth seeing.

Location: The Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PL

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