Rob McCombe | Manchester Museum with the Egyptian collection

As my previous blog discussed, the majority of my work at Manchester Museum has focused on investigating the history of the Egyptian collection. Specifically, I’ve been looking at the nineteenth century history of the mummies and the mummy known as Asru (donated in 1825 by the Garnett brothers) in particular.

Constructing an object biography, would I hoped, allow me to explore ideas, connections and histories that weren’t readily available to viewers in the gallery. This object biographical approach, while valuable and for me, one of the most practical and useful approaches in this situation, is not without its potential problems.  A singular focus upon one object can lead to a narrow view of wider and more complex collections for instance, which in turn has led me to research into the broader historical context of this object. Furthermore, the creation of a successful biography depends upon accessible resources in archives. In this instance I’ve been relatively fortunate, but it has reflected upon the limitations of what’s achievable in a relatively small scale project in terms of both time and scope.

Ultimately, three distinct narrative strands emerged through this exploration of a single object/ person. These were the history of Asru herself, the history of the collection in Manchester and a broader historiography of Egyptology. Within each of these sections ideas of objectification and identity from the personal to the institutional can be traced. What I now want to briefly outline are some of the key resources that I encountered and the information that they provided so as to give some idea of the material and processes that I’ve used and encountered.

Initial research at the museum focused on the Accession Register compiled by Rosalie David in the 1970s, in order to establish which human remains had been donated at what point, forming a basic outline and chronology that I compared to the work of Sam Alberti on the history of Manchester Museum. Through this, I was able to identify that relatively few specimens pre-dated the twentieth century, something that would become increasingly relevant as I came to know and understand more about the collection’s genesis. From here, I approached the Annual Reports of the Museum, examining details of donations and management for the period 1889-1920. These reports began to provide with the initial context that I needed, building upon the secondary research that I was conducting. The extraordinary growth and development of the Museum and the Egyptian collections in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries became increasingly clear. What was also becoming apparent was that I’d need to look deeper into the Museum archives for relevant material directly concerning Asru. Back, in fact, before Manchester Museum was Manchester Museum.

For this I had to locate the archives themselves. Until recently, the Museum held and managed all of its own records, but in the past few years an increasing number of historical documents have been moved to the special collections of the University’s John Ryland’s collections. Here, at last, I was able to engage with some of the Museum’s oldest documents, including the Minutes of the Society for the Promotion of Natural history, Manchester Museum’s precursor. With these documents and early Museum guides as well as personal letters, transcripts and memorabilia such as invitations to the unwrapping of the Two Brothers by Margaret Murray in 1911, I was able to trace the evolution of the collection in some detail. Of particular interest was the early use and display of Asru alongside other human remains no longer present in the current collections. Guides from 1854 describe the old Peter St Museum as displaying the unwrapped mummy alongside bitumen coated Peruvian remains, a preserved Maori head and the remains of a local woman, Hannah Beswick, sold to the society by her physician and on display until 1868. This contrast with later scholarly and academic recognition is noticeable, but far from uncommon for the period, yet remains something that few viewers are aware of when they enter today’s galley.

Many of these details are fascinating in themselves, but the aim of this project has been to provide something more that a series of odd and quirky ‘facts’. To this end, my reading has expanded to examine how other remains were treated in nineteenth century Britain and America. Through this, I’m developing a far more detailed blog post for the Museum itself, in which I intend to examine the dissonance between Asru’s early existence as a ‘curiosity’ and her later emergence as one of the most prominent objects amongst Manchester’s sizeable collections. Ideas of patronage, exploitation, gender and the tension between the mummy as an individual and as an object will be key to this final outcome.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *