I have visited Bolton museum many times in the past 30 years. So when I learned about its £3.8 million refurb I was expecting the usual neat display cases.
I quickly discovered that The Egyptian Collection is a radical departure from the dusty old museums of yesteryear. Split into five rooms, visitors are greeted by a stunningly beautiful Egyptian mask, and nearby objects illustrate how ancient Egypt has influenced our own culture in countless ways. Items like Lord Lever’s 100-year-old smoking cap decorated with genuine Egyptian beads and a case full of remarkable modern fakes remind you how high the demand for all things Egyptian has always been. Among these pieces I spy an innocuous tube of paint and am reliably informed that a brown paint containing ground mummy bones was favoured by pre-Raphaelite artists. I will never look at Millais’s Ophelia in quite the same way.
Like many people my first question is: how did Bolton end up with so many amazing artefacts? This is explained as I move into the next space where the remarkable story of the collection is told through colourful and accessible displays. These include child-friendly areas and, as I’m shown around, I spot a little girl charge excitedly towards one of the kid-height exhibits.
At adult-height there are four portraits of the people who began the collection. These wonderful pictures are embroidered works created by Liverpool artist Sorrell Kerrison and echo the strong textile theme throughout the exhibition. It was cotton mill heiress, Annie Barlow, who began the collection of Egyptian relics as regional secretary of the Egyptian Exploration Fund, a project sponsored largely by local mill owners. The textile industry in Bolton also fuelled the Victorian curators’ curiosity; they marvelled at the skills employed by the ancient Egyptians to create such finely woven fabrics.
The space we move onto is so full of fascinating objects and curios that it’s difficult to know where to look first. This room is flanked by five huge glass arches which look more like an art installation than a museum display. The crammed arches not only create an impact, they allow you to view the contents from every angle. Unusually, Bolton Museum has detailed provenance on all the items because of the way they were acquired by the Egyptian Exploration Fund. In the same gallery there are bright Egyptian-inspired murals on the walls, a dress-up box, and an Egyptian-themed donkey derby to keep the kids entertained.
Mummification and the afterlife are the themes of the next room, with ancient fabric and clothing found in tombs adorning the walls. My guide explains that research on another mummification textile relic in the archives has placed the practice of embalming back a further 1,500 years than previously thought. Experts are currently looking at how to preserve and display what is believed to be the oldest example of Egyptian textiles in the world. The same room houses a mixture of grave goods, such as scarab beetles and mummified cats, then near the doorway the touching remains of a mummified child in a tiny wooden box.
In the connecting ante room there is a fine collection of coffin parts and mummy cases alongside a remarkable piece of original painted wall fragment. It features Thutmose III honouring the god Osiris with wine; it is so crisp and vivid that it’s hard to believe it is thousands of years old.
Finally, we make our way into a space that takes my breath away: an exact 3D laser scan replica of the burial chamber of Thutmose III. There is sand on the ground around the wooden flooring and the walls, which are textured, feature an exact copy of the artwork and hieroglyphs. Even the ceiling is identical to the original, imparting the room with a strange hallowed atmosphere which feels completely authentic. As a finale piece the burial room perfectly demonstrates the incredible attention to detail which has gone into the revamp.
So far, more than 25,000 people have visited this vibrant reimagining of Bolton Museum and its amazing Egyptology collection. I can see it attracting many more in the future.