***You can find part one of this post here.***

Proudly nested just behind the elegant facade of the University of Manchester, just yards from where Ernest Rutherford did some very important stuff with atoms and what-have-you (yes, in Manchester, not Cambridge), lies the Manchester Museum.

Manchester Museum

Now, I don’t want to be superficial, but the obvious place to start with MM is size.  The range of exhibits fall perhaps somewhere in the middle of London’s British Museum and Natural History Museum.  However, if the Manchester Museum were to meet these bigger boys down a dark alleyway and say something inadvised about their parentage then I think it would be our Lancashire friend left with the bruised brickwork and broken wooden cabinets.

On the other hand, what might be genuinely lacking in breadth (and occasionally quality) is more than made up for in charm.  And I certainly don’t mean that as a patronising pat on the head.

For a start, the staff here seem genuinely pleased to see you and happy to help, which should never be underestimated.  Almost all of the exhibits seem freshly presented even though they are often housed in very traditional and grand wooden cabinets.  The small temporary exhibits at the time of visiting – one on Lindow Man and one on race – went way beyond their expected remit, asking deep questions about British and Mancunian identities and even explicitly challenging the way the Museum would have shown such items in the past.

Most surprisingly of all though, MM is that rarest of things: a traditional museum that grapples with the doubts post-modernist thought has cast upon the very lifeblood of museums – order.   This was evident from the very first exhibit: a veritable explosion of stuffed animals and catalogued butterfly wings that I wish I could find a picture of.  This first impression is brilliantly followed up by Mark Dion’s semi-permanent installation, the Bureau of the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacy, an intriguing office full of curiosities inspired by pre-Enlightenment taxonomy and classification.  (I’ve since come across this fascinating paper that does a far better job than I could of analysing the work’s significance.)

This spirit of adventure is maintained throughout the museum by numerous seemingly incongruous slices of Manchester (football scarves, Take That CDs, sepia pictures of trams) that inhabit the same cabinets as exhibits on ancient Egypt or the development of the crossbow.  I can’t find the name of the artist to credit (let me know if you know) but the idea was a great one: spend £1,000 on eBay buying a variety of items claiming to represent Manchester and create an alternative museum-within-a-museum out of them. 

And, if you needed any more incentive to go visit, the Museum’s vivarium tempts you to waste a whole day watching lizards and snakes and the smallest orange frogs you will ever see sloth and scoot about their damp kingdoms.  Fascinating stuff.

I should finish by adding that entry to the Manchester Museum, like the Whitworth Art Gallery, is entirely free.  And very popular that is too judging by the families waiting outside ten minutes before the museum was due to open.