Inside the UK’s largest university museum after £15m transformation

Egypt: Archeologists uncover 2,000-year-old mummies

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Manchester Museum is preparing to reopen to the public on February 18 following an “ambitious” £15million transformation that has increased both its exhibition capacity as well as its accessibility and inclusivity. The largest university museum in the UK, it first opened in 1890 and holds in its collections a whopping 4.5 million specimens from human cultures and the natural sciences — from long-dead Egyptian mummies to live communities of rare frogs. A spokesperson said: “The museum reopens its doors with the aim to build greater understanding between cultures, a more sustainable world and to bring to life the lived experience of diverse communities.” Renovation works have seen the museum reuse and recycle as much material as possible, with Manchester boasting having the world’s first carbon-literate museum. The construction of two new dedicated exhibition halls over the last 17 months has also provided curators an opportunity to update old displays and bring out new gems from the collections that had previously been kept in storage.

Manchester Museum director Esme Ward said: “February 2023 will mark a huge moment in Manchester Museum’s rich history as we open our doors following a major transformation.

“We have extended the building, making room for more joy and learning and evolving into the museum Manchester needs.

“Beautiful new galleries and exhibitions will showcase the best of the museum’s historic collections, as well as addressing the urgencies of the present day and highlighting the complexities of our world.

“We have also listened to advocates with lived experience, and inclusive new spaces and features are incorporated throughout.

She concluded: “We can’t wait to welcome our visitors back.”

The revamped visitor experience begins at the very entrance to the museum, which has been sensibly relocated to the front of the stunning neo-Gothic building on Oxford Road.

Greeting guests will be an exquisite Japanese incense burner and the enormous skeleton of Maharajah — a male Asian elephant whose life exemplifies the way in which a single exhibit in a museum can harbour manifold stories.

At the age of eight, in the year 1872, Maharajah was purchased for Manchester’s Belle Vue Zoological Gardens from a travelling circus in Scotland for the sum of £680 (a whopping £30,000 in today’s money).

He was a popular attraction for the zoo for 10 years — and a participant in many parades around the city — before his tragic death from suspected pneumonia.

However, his true claim to fame arguably came in how he reached Manchester. Unhappy at the prospect of being cooped up in a train for the journey down from Edinburgh, Maharajah broke out of his carriage.

As a result his keeper, Lorenzo Lawrence, was forced to walk the 200 miles to Manchester with his charge, a journey that took the pair ten days and led to many an adventure.

One such is captured in an oil painting hung behind Maharajah, on loan from the Manchester Art Gallery, entitled “The Disputed Toll”. As the story goes, Mr Lawrence found himself haggling with a tollgate keeper over the charge for his and Maharajah’s passage.

Ultimately, the six-foot-tall elephant is said to have got tired of waiting at the gate — and forced the barrier open itself.

The relocation of the original entrance to the museum — via a side alley and a quadrangle — has freed up space for the museum’s most significant change, the construction of a brand-new, two-storey display space.

The ground floor of this extension forms the main Exhibition Hall which, in the words of the museum, will play host to “ambitious shows that explore past, present and future and engage with global and local narratives.”

The blockbuster opening exhibition is “Golden Mummies of Egypt”, which takes advantage of the museum’s world-class Egypt and Sudan collection to challenge traditional, Victorian-era assumptions about the purpose of mummification, specifically during ancient Egypt’s Graeco–Roman period, from 332 BC to AD 395.

Alongside the stunning gilded mummies of the title, the exhibition features more than 100 objects — including the elaborately painted face coverings known as the “Fayum Portraits”.

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In a prominent position as the first permanent exhibition that visitors will encounter is the Belonging Gallery, which “captures the welcoming spirit of the museum” by drawing on various aspects of the museum’s collections and perspectives to reflect on what it means to belong.

A highlight of this display is how the narratives around the artefacts — from the climate-driven migration of the first people into Britain during the last Ice Age to the story of a Syrian refugee’s life jacket from 2017 — are brought to life through the work of various comic artists

Above the exhibition hall, meanwhile, will reside the UK’s first gallery dedicated to the lived experiences of the South Asian diaspora.

Curated not by one individual, but a collective of 30 artists, community leaders and educators, the permanent-but-evolving exhibition will explore both the connection between Britain and South Asia and the region’s culture and creativity.

Among the objects on display at the exhibition’s launch is a scrapbook on partition collated by the father of one of the curators, a rickshaw imported from Bangladesh and decorated by local communities in Manchester, and a mural by the British artists The Singh Twins that represents an emotional map of the South Asian diaspora experience.

The gallery also incorporates a space for performance, film screenings and participatory activities.

Elsewhere in the museum, old favourites and new treats abound. In the historic fossils gallery, iconic Stan the T. rex overlooks a new display on the practice of palaeontology, and a stunning new and more authentic assembly of April the Tenontosaurus that has been almost two decades in the making.

Lovers of wildlife will find much to enjoy in the breathtaking “Living Worlds and Nature’s Library” displays, which include natural history specimens from across the globe, while the adjacent Vivarium houses a vibrant collection of live amphibians and reptiles.

As the staff note, “it is unusual for a museum to care for live animals, but Manchester Museum has done so for over 50 years — offering a unique opportunity to see rare and beautiful creatures and watch conservation in action.”

Funding for the museum’s renovations was provided by the Arts Council England, the National Lottery Heritage Fund, The University of Manchester and various philanthropic supporters.

Other new features introduced as part of the redesign include an accessible toilet, coffee bar, revamped cafe, a picnic and community space, a quiet room and a prayer room.

More information on the various exhibitions is available on the Manchester Museum website.

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