While I was studying in Exeter, I really missed the museums in Liverpool. Not just my volunteering at the World Museum, which helped me get my material culture fix alongside my literature-centred elective university courses, but the variety of the permanent collections, special exhibitions, and events at all of the institutions under the umbrella of National Museums Liverpool. Upon my return to the North West, I was able to catch the very end of the Liverpool Biennial exhibition at Tate Liverpool (www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-liverpool/exhibition/liverpool-biennial-2016), an innovative and thought-provoking showcase which drew correspondences between the ancient world and present day, displaying stunning artefacts from the World Museum’s antiquities collection alongside diverse and contrasting pieces of modern art. It was especially exciting to see some of my favourite pieces from the museum stores, including the striking white ground Lekythoi which I love so much, on display at last, and slightly spooky to see my own handwriting on some of the artefact labels.
My next visit to a special exhibition in Liverpool came at the end of the Christmas break, and took me back to the World Museum, where I spent so many vacations volunteering, immersed in the stillness and wonders of the museum stores, preparing drawings of artefacts for catalogue publications, helping photograph objects for museum records, and tracking down objects which had strayed from their assigned shelves. This time, however, I was returning as a visitor, to enjoy the collections on display, and check out the new ‘Animal Mummies Revealed’ exhibition. I don’t pretend to be any sort of expert on the artefacts of Ancient Egypt. Having never formally studied the region and its history, I am happy to be an enthusiastic layman (laywoman?!), picking up what I can from museum visits, books, and documentaries. The exhibition brings together artefacts from institutions all over the UK, including pieces from the World Museum’s own collection which I had previously seen only in storage. I was once again able to appreciate just how important and extensive the World Museum’s collections are-nearly a third of the artefacts on display came not from further afield, but from within Liverpool itself.
The exhibition reveals the significance of animal mummies in Ancient Egypt, and also sheds light on the excavations and individuals who brought these mummies back to the UK, the (sometimes unfortunate) afterlife of animal mummies, and the techniques used by experts today to examine and analyse mummies. I was particularly struck by the variety of mummies on display, ranging from cats (expected) to jackals, baboons, crocodiles, and even fish! It was fascinating to see the different backgrounds of animal mummies, some of which were beloved pets or had been preserved as food for the afterlife, and others mummified as either religious offerings or votive figures to send messages to the gods.
|Top: Unwrapped crocodile mummy, site and date unknown, University of Manchester.|
Bottom: Crocodile mummy (complete crocodile and two smaller crocodiles!), Thebes, early Roman period 30BC-100AD, National Museums Liverpool, donated by Joseph Mayer.
|Mummy of a bird. Complete bird in the form of Osiris. Contains a Sparrowhawk. Site unknown, probably Ptolemaic Period (332-30BC). Manchester Museum.|
However, the beauty of the animal mummies on display was marred somewhat by the reality of their uses following their excavation. Although some animal mummies were picked up as exciting exotic novelties and thus made it safely back to England to take up residence in private and public collections, some were not so fortunate. The exhibition also illuminated the sad disregard for animal mummies, which were excavated by the hundreds, by 19th century individuals. Some were used as ballast in the hulls of ships returning from Egypt, only to be ground down into fertiliser upon arrival. It is devastating to think of the artefacts and knowledge lost in their process, thrown aside as being of little consequence. Remembering the past attitudes of people towards artefacts such as these makes the efforts of researchers and conservation teams today all the more important in their exploration of ancient worlds through the resources left to us.
The ‘Animal Mummies Revealed’ exhibition is particularly relevant in this respect, since it showcases not only the artefacts and cultural history of Ancient Egypt, but how these pieces are analysed using scientific methods and cutting edge technology. The inclusion of videos showing how animal mummies are examined using X-Rays, CT, and micro CT scanning contrasted the strong sense of reverence and antiquity generated by the collections on display, and reminded me of how useful and relevant artefacts such as these are to important current research. (For more info and videos, follow this link: www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/wml/exhibitions/animal-mummies/behind-the-scenes/index.aspx) The use of these techniques added another dimension to the exhibition, allowing us to see inside the mummies themselves, and giving insight into how different animals are identified and analysed. This fantastic cross-disciplinary angle was really exciting, not only since it reflects a great many trends seen across research in the Arts and Humanities these days, but also because it reinforces the fact that our individual subjects don’t exist in isolation, but can flourish through collaboration with other exciting disciplines. As a PhD student who spends most of her time holed up in her own little research nest, this message really resounded with me, and has encouraged me to seek out alternative, maybe even unorthodox, pathways to explore in my own work.
|Photographs of mummy scans. Left to right: cat mummy in a coffin, puppy mummy, dummy mummy.|
One of my favourite things about exhibitions at the World Museum and other institutions within National Museums Liverpool is their inclusivity. No matter what is on display, there is always something for everyone. These exhibitions aren’t geared solely towards children, as so many these days seem to be. Yes, there are plenty of interactive games, drawing and writing activities, and dressing up activities, but there are also things on offer for the adults too, such as talks and special showcases (www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/wml/events/animal-mummies-listings.aspx). The initiatives taken by this exhibition remind us that learning really is a life-long process, and that museums offer wonderful resources for anyone to explore a new subject, re-examine a familiar topic or artefact in more depth, or even just wander at ease in a welcoming and stimulating environment. It is truly amazing that institutions such as those of National Museums Liverpool can continue to pull off such informative, engaging, and eye-opening projects such as this, completely free of charge, especially in the harsh climate in which arts and culture organisations are forced to exist. I really look forward to whatever they organise next!
Animal Mummies Revealed is open until February 26th 2017.
To see some exhibition highlights, click here: www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/wml/exhibitions/animal-mummies/highlights/index.aspx
If anyone fancies a family trip to World Museum, the Animal Mummies Revealed family pack can be found here: www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/wml/exhibitions/animal-mummies/animal-mummies-family-pack.pdf
To see the hard behind the scenes work of the exhibition curators, click here:
Thanks for reading, here's a festive dinosaur from the World Museum Atrium!