There are many urban myths surrounding Manchester. It’s been said that Hitler had admired the Midlands Hotel in St Peter’s Square so much that he was willing to make it the
headquarters for Nazi occupation in the North West. Equally, there are many myths surrounding the University of Manchester Museum. One of the first things heard, as a fresher, was that the
giant spider crab, which has become something close to a university mascot, originated from the sewers of Manchester after a ‘toxic spill’. Actually, it came from Japan in the early twentieth century. But the myth became part of an identity, and in this way the crab has become an integral part of the university. Likewise, what we discovered is that the museum is a symbol of the university and city.
It originated in 1821 thanks to the Manchester Natural History Society and moved to the university in 1868. The museum has local as well as international connections. With the 2012 London Olympics approaching, a series of displays from different cultures are touring Britain with the intention of improving cultural diversity. Manchester is currently the lucky recipient of the China collection. Behind the exhibition lies an undertone of cultural connections and diplomatic relations between Manchester and China.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is a chime bell donated by the municipal government of Wuhan, Manchester’s sister city in China. 2011 marks the 25th anniversary of the friendship agreement signed by the two cities in 1986. With artefacts ranging from the Shang to the Ming Dynasties visitors can see a variety of objects culminating from China’s wide and varied history. The beauty and variety of the Chinese culture comes out most prominently in the shadow puppets or the porcelain flutes.
As anyone living on the route between Edinburgh and Manchester in 1872 will testify, the origins of the centerpiece of the Natural History section are as weird as they are unique. After being bought by Belle Vue Zoo, Mahajarah, the Indian elephant was unable to travel by train and set off by foot across Scotland and Northern England to Manchester. After ten days he reached Manchester and, after ten years of service to the zoo, died and was donated to the Museum. He is flanked by a collection of materials from throughout the natural world cleverly and attractively annotated in an exam shorthand style.
Manchester’s large Bantu speaking community are depicted through the palm leaf baskets and ivory tusks of the Congo. These day to day cultural objects are a depiction of the greater theme of migration and are intended to relate to the history of the people living in Manchester. Following the natural history collection is the Egyptian section. This includes a number of Mummies, with the exposed feet of a four thousand-year-old Egyptian, providing a reminder of the humanity of the corpse. Not to be outdone the next section presents the visitor with the full-size skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex ‘Stan’, probably the most impressive predator of all time. But for size the Sperm Whale probably steals the award for the most substantial exhibit.
If being face to face with some of the greatest creatures and most beautiful creations in the history of the planet appeals then the museum is a genuinely enjoyable place to go. However, it is not these attention-grabbing exhibits that best represent the museum. From weapons used by the Native Americans to a collection of extinct birds, this museum seems to offer a physical manifestation of the history and diversity of the University and City of Manchester. Perhaps it is in this way that it offers the greatest interest to the Manchester historian.