From Alaska to Aunty

The BBC have recently uploaded a fascinating episode of the popular material culture series Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? filmed at Manchester Museum in 1954.

A panel of experts, including the unmistakable archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler (1890 – 1976), are shown debating the function and origin of seemingly unfamiliar objects. Pooling their collective intellect they attempt to identify a selection of objects from Manchester Museum’s collection. First to be scrutinised is a Yup’ik finger mask from Alaska in the Living Cultures collection, which is described as resembling a 1950s microphone. The round face within a surrounding circle which prompts this comparison is a device used by the Yup’ik to represent the cosmos.


Yup’ik finger mask. Wood. Alaska, USA. Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection.

Yup’ik women use these masks, which can represent a variety of spirits or mythical creatures, during dances to further articulate the all important hand movements. The following film shows just how important hand movements are in traditional Yup’ik dance.

Slavery: Portrayal, Research & Legacy

Quentin Tarantino’s much vaunted and equally as criticised film Django Unchained! has reignited the debate about the portrayal, understanding and legacy of enslavement and the enslaved. Beyond Hollywood UK museums and universities have been engaged with the history of the transatlantic slave trade since the 2007 bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, and some well before. The project Revealing Histories was one such engagement and Manchester Museum was a key contributor, Most recently several contemporary projects, some of which are discussed below, have emerged to further our comprehension of the impact and affect of slavery.

The 1806 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act prohibited further enslavement but those already enslaved were not  freed. In 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act conferred a quasi-state of freedom on the enslaved throughout the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape. This so-called emancipation resulted in handsome compensation for slave-owners, £20 million in total, who claimed they had been ‘economically disadvantaged’ as a consequence. The University College London project Legacies of British Slave-ownership has finally completed the full digitisation of compensation claims all of which of now available to search on-line at

This label was used on the ship Kelvin, which was loaded with cotton picked by enslaved African-Americans in 1865. The ship left Galveston, Texas, USA, and arrived in Liverpool, UK. The cotton was bought by a Bolton merchant. Brass. USA. Mr. J. Wilkinson. Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection. 2013.

This label was used on the ship Kelvin, which was loaded with cotton picked by enslaved African-Americans in 1865. The ship left Galveston, Texas, USA, and arrived in Liverpool, UK. The cotton was bought by a Bolton merchant. Brass, USA, Mr. J. Wilkinson. Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection. 2013.

Complimentary to this the Centre for the Study of International Slavery (CSIS) has recently launched a master’s degree course in International Slavery Studies. CSIS is a partnership between the University of Liverpool and National Museums Liverpool and promotes research into both historic and contemporary enslavement. You can find out more about the course at

Here at the University of Manchester Professor Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, a widely published expert on slavery, race, post-colonialism and African and Caribbean literature, will deliver a public seminar tomorrow entitled Race and the Problem of Modern Time. The event has been organised by English and American Studies and will no doubt prove insightful.

Way Out North West

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West company spent several weeks  in Salford in 1887 and the Manchester Museum has some very special, and unique, material relating to this occurance.


Buffalo Bill's Wild West show poster, 1899 (Not part of the Manchester Museum collection)


In pervious blog posts I’ve detailed this material ( but if you’d like to find out more I’ll be giving a talk this Friday at 1pm in the Museum as part of the Manchester Histories Festival. Please do feel free to drop in but do be aware that space is limited so be punctual!

Stephen Terence Welsh

Curator of Living Cultures

Pharmaceuticals and Shamans

Earlier this month I gave a lecture to NHS staff the focus of which was the relationship between the Living Cultures collection and the history of medicine. It was part of a week-long series of events called Culture Shots which aimed at introducing NHS staff to the very many cultural assets in and around Manchester. You can find out further details about this project at

Pestle. Oceania, Cook Islands, Mauke. Henry Wellcome. The Manchester Museum Living Cultures Collection.

The lecture explored the life of one particularly important 19th century entrepeneur and collector whose objects form an integral component of the Living Cultures collection, namely Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome. Born in 1853 in Almond, Wisconsin, USA, Wellcome migrated to the UK in 1880. Whilst here his pharmaceutical company, Burroughs Wellcome & Company, became a market leader and with it came a vast personal fortune. Recreationally, he was a passionate ameatuer ethnographer and was fascinated with medicinal practice and around the world. He indulged this passion using his fortune and acquired an astonishing personal collection of 1,500,000 objects, 125,000 may well have had some medical use. Upon his death in 1936 the Wellcome Trust became responsible for administering his estate, it invested heavily in medical research, and continues to do so, and took the difficult decision to rationalise the huge collection. This rationalisation saw parts of the collection distributed to other museums throughout the UK and internationally. To find out more about the life of Sir Henry Wellcome and the work of the Wellcome Trust visit

Sir Henry Wellcome. Copyright The Wellcome Trust.

The Living Cultures collection generously received over 1000 objects as donated in 1926, 1953, 1957, 1981 and finally in 1983. Not all of the objects in question are directly related to the history of medicine but a significant percentage are. Some of the wonderful objects from the Wellcome collection that we have here at the Manchester Museum can be seen below.

Mask. Asia, Sri Lanka. Henry Wellcome. The Manchester Museum Living Cultures Collection.


Feather head-dress. Henry Wellcome. South America, Brazil. Henry Wellcome. The Manchester Museum Living Cultures Collection.

Pestle. Oceania. Henry Wellcome. The Manchester Museum Living Cultures Collection.

The fascination with non-Western medicinal practice is as strong as it ever was, with shows like Channel 4s recent Medicine Men Go Wild testifying to this.

Medicine Men Go Wild. Copyright Channel 4.

Stephen Terence Welsh

Curator of Living Cultures

From Manchester to Sheffield and Liverpool

On the 26th June 2011 our most recent and celebrated temporary exhibition China: Journey to the East closed to the public. The exhibition has been with us for 9 months and was supposed to be heading home to the British Museum but instead will open in Weston Park, Sheffield later in the year. This new addition to the tour schedule proves just how popular the topic of China is with museum visitors and users alike. The exhibition has allowed the Manchester Museum to affirm its relationship with Manchester’s Chinese community and it will hopefully develop as we explore future opportunities for collaboration.

This Chinese porcelain tea-pot is currently on display in the Manchester Gallery with other fascinating objects from China. It dates to the early 20th century and was donated by Robert Dukinfield Darbishire. Hopefully, we'll be able to exhibit much more of our Chinese collection in the Manchester Gallery in the not too distant future.

In other news we’ve finally completed the transfer of an object from the Living Cultures collection to the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool. The object in question is a punishment collar from a 19th century plantation in the USA. It would have been placed around the necks of enslaved Africans who had attempted to escape. It had been on loan to the International Slavery Museum for several years so it made perfect sense to make the transfer. The process of transferring objects from one museum collection to another is often called rationalisation, and it has been occurring since museums began. The punishment collar is better placed in the International Slavery Museum as  it is an institution dedicated to exploring the very many experiences, histories and legacies of the transatlantic slave trade.

Stephen Terence Welsh

Curator of Living Cultures

Queens and Cotton

With the UK press hotly debating the significance of the British Royal Family it’s fascinating to think that Victorian Manchester was a veritable monarch magnet. Queen Victoria had an intimate relationship with the city in the late 19th century but  so too did a lesser known contemporary, namely Queen Ranavalona III of Madagascar.

Queen Ranavalona III of Madagascar, 1861 - 1917

In an attempt to deter the French from colonising Madagascar Ranavalona strengthened diplomatic and economic ties with the UK and USA. Manchester had been exporting cotton cloth to Madagascar throughout the 19th century so Ranavalona would have been acutely aware of the citys economic importance.

Tootal-Broadhurst and Lee Co Building, Victorian cotton manufacturers, Manchester

In recognition of this Ranavlona sought the favour of Sir Kenneth Lee of  Tootal-Broadhurst and Lee Co, eminent Manchester cotton manufactorers. She did this by corresponding with Lee via her ambassadors and by means of a royal gift in the form of an exquisite piece of Malagasy lamba cloth. The cloth was eventually donated to the Manchester Museum by Lee’s sister-in-law Mrs. Crawley in 1936.

Malagasy lamba cloth, Madagascar, late 19th century. Living Cultures collection, the Manchester Museum

Unfortunately, Ranavalona’s attempts to stave off colonisation failed, by 1886 she was in exile and the French had seized control of the island nation. Lamba cloth sent by Ranavalona to important individuals can now be found in entnographic collections in both the UK and USA. These royal gifts are testiment to one woman’s struggle to desperately defend her kingdom.

Stephen Terence Welsh

Curator of Living Cultures