On 30th October 1912 a group of dignitaries assembled for the opening of a new building in the Manchester Museum, designed to house the important Egyptology collections. Exactly one hundred years later, we have now opened our new ‘Ancient Worlds’ galleries – and they are already proving very popular.
The new galleries consist of three main parts. The first gallery (previously the rather claustrophobic ‘Egyptian Daily Life’) introduces archaeological methods and explains how we know about the past, through a number of guides related to the field. This section, for example, explains Manchester’s unique contribution to facial reconstruction of ancient peoples, and Flinders Petrie’s ‘sequence dating’ based on pottery typology. Further digital content – including text, images, audio commentary, and 360 degree photography – can be downloaded using codes that appear on object labels. A visitor services assistant can unlock this information for those without a smart phone. This information can also be viewed online, at www.ancientworlds.co.uk.
The second space – formerly the Egyptian Afterlife gallery – is now Egyptian Worlds. Objects are arranged chronologically, with a timeline running around the top of the wall cases – making clear to visitors when, relative to main ‘periods’ of Egyptian history, material is situated. This timeline is illustrated with pots, to show changes in ceramic styles over time. Within this chronological framework individual themes are developed, such as the importance of writing in the Old Kingdom and Manchester’s unique evidence for magical practice in the Middle Kingdom. A smaller adjoining space now houses our rich collection of painted mummy portraits from Roman Egypt, including two of the rare examples of mummies with portraits still in place.
Finally, in our third gallery ‘Exploring Objects’ – what previously housed Mediterranean Archaeology – we present dense displays of several categories of artefacts found in abundance in museum collections, such as Roman glass, pottery lamps, or Egyptian stone vessels. One section that has already proved popular is our case packed with shabti figures, arranged roughly in chronological order to show changes in colour with time. The reason behind creating these densely-filled cases was simple: museum visitors expressed an interest in seeing more material on display. More objects than ever before are now on view in all three galleries, many for the first time in over 50 years. With around a thousand whole and fragmentary shabtis in storage, we wanted to show many more than the dozen or so examples that had been on display in the old galleries. The result is an aesthetically striking display – as evidenced by the popularity of this case with photographers!
In the year since I arrived at the Museum, ‘Ancient Worlds’ has dominated almost every aspect of life. It has been a wonderful opportunity to bring objects from one of Britain’s (and, indeed, Europe’s) great collections from Egypt and Sudan to a new audience. Yet, it has also been very satisfying to hear people express surprise as seeing an object from the old galleries in a new context – in this way many familiar pieces are getting a second look.
A project of this size obviously runs into its fair share of challenges. Yet even when things didn’t go quite according to plan, solutions were found – and the results, we hope, speak for themselves. It was a particular pleasure to work so closely with a team of such tireless, talented, and enthusiastic people at the Museum. We all hope that our new galleries bring Ancient Worlds to life in new and exciting ways for our visitors.
You can see all of Paul Cliff’s photos from the opening at the Museum’s Flickr page.