The Manchester Museum opened its newly refreshed exhibitions of archaeology and Egyptology at the end of last semester. The Museum is nestled at the very heart of the University, across the road from University Place. It has a tremendously varied collection, ranging from Dinosaurs to (living) poisonous frogs and from anthropological to geological artefacts. The archaeological collection is internationally significant and into which the Ancient Worlds exhibition gives a fascinating insight.
The first room of the exhibition looks at archaeology in general terms and is filled with all manner of artefacts in bright cases. There are screens hanging from ceiling, showing vox pops with archaeologists and school children. The focus of this room is to consider what archaeology can tell us about the past; this is certainly interesting for a historian because this complementary field of study addresses the same problems from a different approach. One of the more curious objects on display here is an Etruscan clay model of a woman’s womb. Bryan Sitch, Curator of Archaeology, explains that “the womb is a way of talking about ancient gynaecology, especially the better documented Greek attitudes to women and exploring what may seem to us as some pretty strange ideas about the womb and the cause of women’s illness, in particular that women became ill because their womb was in the wrong place in their body.” Certainly, the ‘wandering womb’ is just one example of the weird and wonderful things that were part of everyday life in the ancient world.
The second room feels more like a traditional museum. In what the Museums Journal refers to as a ‘modern take on a cabinet of curiosities’, is displayed the crème of the Museum’s Egyptology collection. Laid out chronologically, including the sarcophagus of two brothers, it encapsulates life – and death – in Egypt. Above this room, there is another gallery called Exploring Objects, which looks at fakes, display techniques and why we think some objects are more worthy of interest than others. Bryan Sitch says that the mass display of shabtis (model workers for the afterlife from ancient Egypt), lamps and glass vessels are part of the plan for the exhibition – “we did set out to show more of the reserve collections and to show a wider selection of what the Museum holds.”
The hidden treasure in this exhibition is a small room displaying Egyptian death masks from Roman Egypt. I missed this room on my first visit (it is just on left after you leave the Egyptian room), but these surprisingly life-like portraits are somehow rather thrilling. They seem to capture an unvarnished everyday appearance, albeit one tinged with sadness, no doubt projected by our knowledge of their purpose.
While this is an exhibition about the ancient world, the Museum uses some cutting edge technology to present information to its visitors. According to Bryan Sitch, “one criticism often made of old displays is that they are too much like a book on the wall. There is too much text and reading it is very tiring for many museum visitors. However some museum visitors do expect to see lots of information. The challenge for the Museum is to provide a range of interpretation that meets the expectations of all its visitors.” To get around this problem the Museum has introduced a smartphone app that allows visitors to look up more information about artefacts they are particular interested in. Another really fascinating piece of new technology is the Haptic, a simulator that gives visitors the tactile experience of touching an artefact without the problems of erosion or damage to fragile items. Bryan Sitch explained that this was initially developed for visually impaired people, but has been popular with all visitors. It is a rather extraordinary sensation!
So, next time you have got an hour or two between lectures, don’t trudge the familiar path to the Library, head over to the Ancient Worlds exhibition instead!