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13 November 2014

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You are in: Manchester > Places > Manchester places > The moth, the mummies and Maharajah

The moth, the mummies and Maharajah

Why do museums have what they have? And what is Manchester’s link with an elephant called Maharajah, some Egyptian mummies and three Zulu spears? The Manchester Museum is hoping to reveal their hidden stories.

Skeleton of elephant in Manchester Museum

The new gallery opens on April 4

Walk upstairs at the Manchester Museum, and you will be struck by the sight of a large tusked elephant, which forms the centrepiece of a new gallery.

Curators Andrea Winn and Stephen Welsh

Curators Andrea Winn and Stephen Welsh

More than 130 years ago, the elephant, known as Maharajah, was once the star attraction of Belle Vue Zoo. But, like many of the museum’s 4.25 million specimens and objects, there’s an interesting story behind Maharajah and how he arrived here.

It’s connections like this which the Museum is looking to highlight in the new Manchester Gallery, as Andrea Winn, Curator of Community Exhibitions, explains:

"It’s to pull out some of the hidden stories, to connect our collection to the city’s history and for people of the city to take pride and ownership over the collection and, hopefully, to tell the museum’s part in the city’s history."

'Attitude'

In 1875, Maharajah had been performing in a circus in Edinburgh which then folded and, keen to acquire the animal, James Jennison, owner of Belle Vue Zoo, bought the elephant and arranged for it to be transported by train.

Painting showing elephant at toll gate (c) Manchester City Galleries

'The Disputed Toll' by Heywood Hardy

What happened next is the stuff of legend, explained Andrea. "Whether it’s a myth or a clever bit of Victorian marketing, we don’t know.

"But the story has it that he wasn't very happy going inside the carriage or smashed it to pieces. Either way, they couldn't transport him back by rail.

"So, the zookeeper [Lorenzo the Lion Tamer] actually offered to walk the 220 miles to Manchester with Maharajah which took ten days. And there was a big fanfare when he arrived at Belle Vue."

Another part of the legend suggests that, somewhere en route, Maharajah was stopped by a truculent tollgate keeper who argued with Lorenzo over how much to charge this oversized road user.

Deer antler

Found digging the Ship Canal

Losing patience, the elephant simply wrapped his trunk around the gate, lifting it off its hinges, before continuing his long walk. Or so the story goes. No wonder, that this ‘elephant with attitude’ was given a hero’s welcome by the people of Manchester.

NB The story inspired at least one book [‘The Elephant Who Walked to Manchester’] and the painting ‘The Disputed Toll’ by Heywood Hardy which hangs at Manchester Art Gallery.

Stories

The museum’s new gallery - which is divided into five themes, Journeys, Migration, the Museum, Collectors and the Environment – is illustrated with other stories connecting the exhibits with the city:

  • Roman Altar - the discovery of an altar stone or roadside shrine during building excavations in 2008 revealed the name of only the second known Roman in Manchester, Aelius Victor, at the fort of Mamucium;
  • Zulu Spears - mementos of Capt. Christopher Ogden who led soldiers from the Manchester Regiment in quelling the final revolt by the Zulu nation against British rule, altering South African history for years to come;
  • Manchester Moth - one of only three specimens of a moth found in the 1830s on Kersal Moor in Salford but now thought extinct. Once part of a collection burned by an angry landlady when the collector Robert Cribb couldn't pay his rent;
  • Egyptian Mummies - why Manchester has one of the largest and most important collections of ancient Egyptian artifacts in the UK is because a wealthy cotton merchant funded an archaeological trip to Egypt.
  • Deer Antler - a 10,000 year old deer antler that was unearthed during the excavation of the Manchester Ship Canal.

Characters

Stephen Welsh, is the in charge of the museum’s anthropology collection.

Zulu spears

Historic: Zulu spears

He admits that museums like Manchester haven’t really demonstrated how they came about their collections but says it’s something they’re keen to address:

"A lot of people tend to think that they’re quite scientific institutions and it’s very logical why they're established," he said. "But if you look into that history, it’s not a logical as you might think.

"There are many different characters involved; maybe it was soldiers who brought objects back from campaigns; maybe it was armchair anthropologists, rich cotton merchants who never left the North West, but who managed to amass large collections of art, science and culture through auction houses."

The new gallery also includes artwork by pupils from Abbey Hey Primary School in Gorton who were inspired by fossil footprints in the museum’s collection.

Like Maharajah, we're all on a journey. Even the museum.

The Manchester Gallery opens at Manchester Museum on April 4. 

last updated: 03/04/2009 at 14:35
created: 27/03/2009

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