One of the reasons we love volunteering is because we get to go behind the scenes in the Museum.

Today we volunteered in Entomology with Phil Rispin. Entomology is the study of insects. It sounded very boring but it certainly wasn’t. When entering there is a funny odour which permeates throughout the room, apparently it’s part of the preservation process. The room is lined with old and interesting wooden cabinets and draws that are clearly labelled. These draws hold the third largest insect collection in the UK.

The first drawer we were shown was full of huge beautiful butterflies, these were the “Queen Alexandra Bird Wings” from Papua New Guinnea.  The female is at least six inches long and the largest butterfly species in the world. The male is smaller and more brightly coloured.  Did you know that what gives the colours on butterfly’s wings that look like tiny dust particles are in fact tiny scales? If handling butterflies you have to be very careful as these rub off very easily, exposing the wing’s framework which is transparent.  This can be dangerous for live species in preventing their ability to fly properly as well.

Another insect we saw was the Jewelled Beetle.  Now this is an amazing beetle with an iridescent wing case of purples and greens.  We have found a picture of a dress which was made for an actress playing Lady McBeth in Victorian times.  It has recently been restored and you can see that it is covered with the iridescent wings of this beetle. For those who are worried, the insect naturally shed their wing cases as part of their life cycle, in order to grow.


Another sort of insect shown was the Madagascan Moon Moth, which likes to fly in the day time.

Finally, the edible “Witchiti Grub”, which native Australians consider a delicacy – UGH!  Besides the large collection behind the scenes that we saw a tiny part of today, Manchester Museum has a large collection of insects on show on their galleries, and in the Vivarium where you can spot live beetles scurrying among the frogs and lizards.

So come along, we would love to see you!!

Written by Clare Whittan and Jackie Eaton.

My previous blog introduces the origins of the earth being a molten ball of fire bombarded by meteorites.  It has taken billions of years to calm and cool before any form of life began; for the oceanic and continental crusts to form, for landmasses to clash and crumple up to create our mountains and oceanic rift valleys, for earthquakes and volcanoes to form and reform the landscape, a phenomenon which to this day sometimes catastrophically provide evidence of the colossal molten turbulence below.   A thin layer of crust which has compressed and hardened into rock encases this colossal magma ball.  Billions of years worth of continual layering from life’s detritus still doesn’t detract from the fact it is a veritable peach skin encasing 12,756.32 km (7,926.41 miles) measuring from the equator to the core of violently hot magma. Earth centreThe crust measures just 7 kilometers (4.34 miles) to 48.28032 Kilometres (30 miles) thick.  Slightly shorter through the poles, 7,901 miles (12,715.43 km), gives the earth a very fractionally squashed shape.  I’m not a maths bod at all, but if you’d like to work out the volume using πr2 and whatever else it is to calculate the quantity of earth’s molten fluid, help yourself.  Suffice to say that there are millions of tonnes of magma at temperatures exceeding 5000 degrees and pressures at the core reaching 3.3 million times the atmospheric pressure at the surface. More recent findings since these made 20 years ago now state temperatures here can actually exceed 55000 degrees Celsius, (which is nearly 10,000 Fahrenheit).   That’s hotter than the surface of the sun.  In fact parts can even reach 1000 degrees hotter – something to think about when you’re stuck in traffic.  If this has wetted your appetite, then topics such as earths’ magnetism and avalanches at the Earth’s core might be further topics of interest.  This background however, is in preparation and to help understand the factors behind some of the beautiful rock and mineral formations in the next instalment.

Post by Jennie Trueman

Manchester Museum’s galleries are in a constant cycle of renewal, but none have undergone such a radical transformation in both display and interpretation as ethnography.

For over a century Manchester Museum has opened its doors and invited visitors to explore its collection of extraordinary objects. As the little girl gazes in wonder, pointing at the huge skeleton suspended above, holding her hand, granddad remembers the moment in his childhood, having successfully negotiated the curses of the ancient Egyptian mummies, standing in that very same spot and marvelling for the first time at the huge sperm whale.

Moments like this happen at Manchester Museum every day.

sperm whale

Time moves on and the whale, mummies, and so many others remain alongside popular new additions, not least Stan the T-Rex, yet some objects have not survived time’s test so well. In the early twentieth century the ethnology collection monopolised four of the museum’s galleries, including the entire 1927 extension, yet now it is contained within the one ‘Living Cultures’ gallery, extending in part into the interdisciplinary ‘Manchester Gallery’.


What happened? Other collections have their own ethical challenges—animal rights, display of human remains, authenticity of displaying replicas, etc., so what caused this drive, by both the museum and an increasingly multicultural society, to redisplay and reinterpret the ethnography collection?

In simple terms, anthropology was an academic discipline spawned among the landscape of ground-breaking theories of evolution during the mid-nineteenth century. In this age of imperial European global domination, Western schools of thought used comparisons with indigenous peoples to posit theories of social development from primitive, through savage and barbarous, towards civilisation—placing the ‘primitive’ as something exotic and Other to Western ‘civilisation’. This dialectic has had a lasting influence on science and history, as well as fiction and popular culture.

Further, in many museums there have been concerns that ethnographic objects represent the spoils of empire and are burdened with the guilt of the atrocities of their colonial past. In the post-colonial climate of the late twentieth, this left some museums with often extensive ethnographic collections that no longer rested well with their institution’s vision.

Even in the mid-nineteenth century, collecting was hardly a new thing. As early as the Middle Ages, people of wealth had collected relics as symbols of power, and over time the spectrums of both the collectors and the objects collected broadened to include not just those of religious significance, but also ‘naturalia’—precious stones, shells, tusks and ‘unicorn horns’, and also oddities in jars, like conjoined foetuses; and ‘artificialia’—human-crafted vases, sculptures, coins, scientific instruments, and the exotic objects brought back from Africa, Asia and the Americas. This was the beginning of the ‘Cabinet of Curiosity’, a concept that encapsulates the wonder of this age at the turn of the seventeenth century. These exotic objects inspired early modern Europeans to question traditional knowledge and move towards new ways of thinking about the world and its objects.


Conceptually, this is not too far removed from today’s museums, and the ways in which visitors are challenged to enter into a dialogue with the world and its cultures.

Along with the morbid intrigue that accompanied Egyptian mummies and ‘monstrous births’, and the phallocentric power symbols of ancient and exotic weapons, Cabinets of Curiosity and early modern museums were often philanthropic, looking to publically exhibit and share their collections as an encyclopaedic knowledge, privileging completism and chronology. Into the mid nineteenth century, this complimented emerging academic disciplines of zoology, botany, numismatics and archaeology, in which things could be named, dated, listed and compartmentalised. In terms of modernity and museum classification, it was arguably the publication of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859 all of a sudden allowed humanity to be likewise studied and labelled.

The consequent rise and development in social and human anthropology, ethnology and ethnography gave increasing currency to collections of objects from indigenous peoples worldwide. It was believed that the observation of ‘savage’ and ‘barbarous’ peoples, through ethnographic research, would help to contextualise archaeological material and further the understanding of how Western society had achieved ‘civilisation’. The resulting drive towards the so-called ‘civilisation’ of indigenous peoples, especially in Africa, was one of the justification narratives used by British and other European imperial forces for their oppressive colonisations.

By the mid-twentieth century, through bequest, donation, exchange and field collection, Manchester Museum had amassed an extensive ethnology collection, including ‘fetish dolls’ and ‘shrunken heads’. Visitors could be reassured of their own civilised ways by looking through the museum’s window onto an altogether different world.


There are many stories, particularly on local online forums for museum memories, from people who remember Manchester at some point having displayed a ‘shrunken head’. Whether or not this was ever the case, this fascination perhaps reveals more about society and popular culture at the time than the display of the tsantsa did about the semi-nomadic Jivaroan or Shuar people of Peru and Ecuador who made and used it.

As the twentieth century moved onwards, thinking became more critical, and museums became more self-aware. There was an increased consciousness in the language used to describe both people and objects, and particularly an increased sensitivity towards the display of human remains. The changes in the ways that humanity is seen and represented, and the laws regarding the storage of human tissue, have had a huge impact on museums that store and display human remains including body parts. This has affected Egyptology, archaeology and ethnography collections alike. Particularly with ethnographic collections, there are numerous instances when this has resulted in repatriations to the physical and cultural descendants, including the high profile ceremony at Manchester Museum in July 2003 in which four skulls were returned to a delegation of Australian Aboriginal elders.


At this time there must have been concerns among museum professionals that this would open the floodgates for disputes in ownership and claims for restitution. By and large this was not the case. It currently seems that access to objects is more important for source communities. Museums with ethnography collections, are meeting this challenge for access in many practical ways, including engaging and collaborating with diverse worldwide communities.

What has this meant for Manchester?

Historically, Ethnology’s shift away from natural history towards archaeology has been connected as much with physical space and staff personalities at Manchester Museum as with intellectual change within anthropology[i]. The Museum’s first curator William Boyd Dawkins, like contemporaries Pitt Rivers and Lubbock, advocated ethnology as a science, with both human remains and artefacts displays as part of the evolutionary process of natural history.


It wasn’t until the appointment of Roderick Urwick Sayce as keeper that there was a significant move of ethnographic collections away from biology. His background was in anthropology and geography, and as elsewhere Bronislaw Malinowski was advocating a disciplinary separation from material culture, it was Sayce who renamed Manchester’s collection ‘Ethnography’, as this best fitted the non-material emphasis and his own links with geography. And it was under James Forde-Johnston in 1969 that there came complete conceptual and physical disciplinary separation of Ethnology from archaeology as well as natural history.

The current ‘Living Cultures’ gallery was conceived by curator George Bankes, whose doctoral thesis was on Moche pottery, with an extensive grounding in fieldwork in Peru. He communicated with both archaeological and anthropological audiences, through direct comparisons with contemporary and archaeological objects.


‘Living Cultures’ was officially opened in October 2003. Bankes intended the gallery to be an ‘object-dense’ exhibition, divided thematically, and that objects should be related to their originating communities. The four main themes of the gallery are ‘Out of Clay’, ‘Weapons and Armour’, ‘Cloth and Clothing’ and ‘Masks and Carvings’.

According to Bankes[ii] there are objects from at least 103 originating communities and this vast number made the involvement of all communities in decisions about how their culture should be represented impossible. His methods of involving source communities included making them aware during fieldwork that objects and photographs were for museum display; a process he used when collecting pottery in Mórrope and Simbilá, and sending images and printed material relating to exhibitions to source communities. It was also Bankes’ intention to include quotations from makers on the gallery information panels in order to give a voice to the originating communities; these however were not included in the final gallery design.

Consultation was made during the design phase with the Museum’s Community Advisory Panel, members of which were able to give additional contextual information to some of the objects intended for display. They were further given a voice by the ‘Rekindle’ project whereby short films were made while they talked about their chosen objects. These films are currently available on interactive screens in the gallery.

Ethnography is a constantly transforming discipline, in which even the language used to describe objects is continually changing. ‘Living Cultures’ went a long way to bring new and divergent narratives out of the museum’s collection. Over a decade on and Manchester Museum is still committed to addressing diverse audiences, and promoting understanding between cultures. Stephen Welsh, the current curator of Living Cultures, works with individuals along with school and community groups who continue to use the collection to explore cultural identity, some of whom have been recorded as a series of short films, titled ‘Collective Conversations’.

Today the museum is still a cabinet, of sorts, it still inspires curiosity in visitors of all ages, and surely there is still a desire to marvel at the extraordinary, but this is done in new ways; reconnecting and collaborating with source communities, and extending this beyond the museum walls and gallery spaces. It is no longer one, unilinear narrative, but a place of shared memories, new stories and collective conversations.

Post by Michelle Scott

[i] Alberti, S.J.M.M. (2006) ‘Culture and Nature: The Place of Anthropology in the Manchester Museum’, Journal of Museum Ethnography, no. 18, Oxford, Museum Ethnographers Group, pp. 7-21.

[ii] Bankes, G. (2006) ‘From Explorers and Encounters to Living Cultures’, Journal of Museum Ethnography, no. 18, Oxford, Museum Ethnographers Group, pp. 23-36.

Easter Island or Rapa Nui, as the islanders call it, is an island in the South Pacific. It is 3700km off the coast of the South American continent and is one of the most geographically isolated, inhabited places on earth. The island was formed 3 million years ago when a huge volcanic cone began to rise up from beneath the sea. Numerous eruptions created the island as we know it today, the last ones being 300,000 years ago. Rapa Nui is on a tectonic plate, but without it there wouldn’t be an island. The Rapanui are believed to have settled there between 300 and 1200 CE and they were of Polynesian origin. The Rapanui speak Spanish but originally they spoke the old form of Rapanui, which is an eastern Polynesian language.

Rapa 1The Rapanui erected stone statues or moai in various places around the island, most facing inland. The statues were erected on stone ceremonial platforms called ahu around the coastline. The moai face inland towards the villages as if watching over the people. Over 800 statues were made on the island. Many of them being carved out of a type of rock called volcanic tuff, and they tend to have large heads and elongated features. The eyes were only put in for ceremonies, when the statues were ‘activated’.

Rapa 2

The Rapanui performed rituals from the moment of birth including when the umbilical cord was cut, the first haircut, first tattoo and coming of age. The most important rituals were associated with death. By invoking the help of the ancestors through the statues the Rapanui believed that their forefather’s spirits would come to their aid when needed.

Rapa Nui’s population may have grown to around 15,000 before the Europeans discovered the island in the 1700’s. During the early 19th century Easter Island became a stopping-off point for whaling ships and other vessels. The Rapanui had little resistance to the diseases that the ships’ crews brought with them. Rats were also introduced by Polynesians, however, there was no known disease associated with them in particular.  In 1862 Peruvian ships involved in what were known as ‘blackbirding’ raids, forced captured islanders to work in South America. The few Rapanui who returned brought with them infectious diseases, which killed a large number of the people that stayed on the island. About a thousand islanders had been taken away for slavery, and the remaining population was devastated by smallpox, which all contributed to the decline of the Rapanui. By the 1870s there were only 111 Rapanui still remaining on the island. The island became part of Chile in 1888 and in 2002 it was reported that the population was around 3,304 inhabitants, almost all living in the village of Hanga Roa on the western coast.

Rapa 5

Post by Shaun Bennett

One of the attractions of museums is they preserve and display things from mysterious parts of the planet that are rarely visited. In this series of blogs, I am hoping to delve deeper into some of the mystery and excitement, the stories behind some pretty innocuous looking objects that might otherwise be overlooked. Rocks for example, may appear boring with crystals only slightly better for getting people to stop and look due to their beautiful colours, shapes and sparkle. The frozen aesthetic of crystals, and the apparent blandness of rocks, belies that they are a product of powerful and violent processes deep within the Earth’s crust. This is a constant reminder that what we eat, sleep, go to work on, play on, get bored, destroy, dream and build on is, and always has been, in constant flux.


When the universe began 4.5-4.6 billion years ago, Earth remained a super-hot mass of magma from the initial super-nova, the Big Bang. Oxygen didn’t exist, in fact it was only 500 million years ago that the atmosphere became breathable. Prior to this, the Earth was essentially an inhospitable furnace blasted by a continuous onslaught of meteors. There are no meteors or rocks whatsoever from this time in Earth’s history because they would have been vaporised in the swirling Hadean mass. Meteors were exploded out from the same Big Bang that formed the Earth, and so the ones that have been found since the surface cooled tell us Earth’s age. We will come onto meteors in a subsequent blog. However, I do want to take us to a mighty celestial body in what is a relatively new lunar year. Thea, is the size of Mars and it brushed by us shortly (in planetary terms) after the Earth formed. The energy produced from this glancing blow was enough to dislodge a mass of boiling rock large enough to eventually settle into the Earth’s gravitational field and form our Moon.

Post by Jennie Trueman

MocheThe Moche civilization flourished from about 1 to 700 CE, on the North Peruvian region between the Andes and the Pacific. They farmed beans, cotton, squash, chillies and peanuts. They also reared duck and llamas, which they then used the wool of for clothing.  The Moche people were experts in the extraction of gold, silver and other metals from the environment. The Moche also made some beautiful jewellery using gold and silver; with inlays of turquoise and other semi-precious stones. Another craft that the Moche people were famous for is the pottery.

Moche 2The Moche were skilled ceramists, of which some were very sexually explicit. The ceramic artwork had a variety of subjects, complex scenes from animals, plants and Gods to human figures. Some of the pots were used as water vessels, for ceremonial purposes, maybe to teach about procreation or to be used for burial purposes. The pots in my opinion are quirky, funny, cute and simply beautiful.

The most common sexual position depicted in Moche pottery was anal, both heterosexual and homosexual. This was probably a form of contraception, or when all other positions were forbidden during the agricultural festivals. I find the comical faces portrayed to be humorous; but then again, I can’t imagine why they would have a straight face.

All the pots were functional, with hollow chambers for holding liquid. Museums and private collectors from all over the world have collected these pots, as they are many in numbers.

Nobody really knows the reasons for the end of the Moche. Their civilisation may have perished because of earthquakes, prolonged drought or even flooding. The Moche culture was followed by the Wari people, who lived and ruled for over 500 years. A widely travelled culture, they built vast road networks and strong stone buildings.

Post by Shaun Bennett

Manchester Museum received a VIP guest recently in the shape of Stan’s long-lost American cousin.

No, not our visiting Gorgosaurus but Seattle-based schoolteacher Doug Sacrison, who boasts an interesting connection to Manchester Museum’s resident Tyrannosaurus rex.

Doug is the cousin of Stan Sacrison, the intrepid fossil hunter who first found Stan’s original bones in South Dakota, and also the man who gave Stan his name.

So, it was more or less a family obligation for Doug to call in and say hello to Stan and grab this great photo with him for the Sacrison family album, whilst visiting Manchester on a trip around Europe.


Doug Sacrison

And this isn’t the first time Doug has come face-to-face with the T. Rex – he’s also clocked up two visits to see the cast of Stan in the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, Albuquerque.

So if you’re feeling inspired to take up the Stan Spotting challenge and take a ‘selfie’ with all his complete skeletons, here are just some of the places you’ll need to visit: Black Hills Institute, South Dakota, USA (home of the original Stan); Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Centre, Colorado, USA; Oxford University Museum of Natural History; and, of course, Manchester Museum.

Good luck and happy dino hunting!

And many thanks to Doug, both for paying us a visit as well as sharing this remarkable ‘snap’ from the Sacrison family album.


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