I decided to go to Ipswich Museum for some inspiration for my next blog post, especially since I hadn’t been there for years, but while I was walking around I thought it might be fun to write my own little review/guide to the place. What follows is a selection of highlights from my walk around the museum.
Victorian Natural History Gallery
The first thing you see when you walk through the doors into the museum is the woolly mammoth and in my opinion that’s exactly what you want to see when you walk into a museum. The whole of this first hall is filled with taxidermy – every animal from mouse to monkey to lion, but it’s the mammoth and its sheer size that grabs you first. I walked over and looked up at its hairy face and could instantly remember coming to the museum as a child and wanting to jump over the barrier and climb up on to its back, the same went for the rhino and the giraffe. Standing there, surrounded by stuffed animals of every variety with blank eyes, I found that I still wanted to. I shot a look over my shoulder at the hovering security guard, but he looked like he’d had a long day and I didn’t think it would be fair to put him through the ordeal of tugging a 24 year old man-child off a prehistoric mammal replica, and anyway, I still wanted to see the rest of the museum.
Here are a couple of interesting facts about the Natural History Gallery to keep you going:
1). The gorillas on display known as the Du Chaillu’s Gorillas were the first ever seen in Britain.
2). The rhino (known to visitors as ‘Rosie’) arrived at Ipswich Museum in 1907 and was traded with the British Museum for a pig.
Unfortunately, Rosie had her horn stolen in July 2010 and the two men seen driving off from the scene of the crime were never caught. Happily though, the horn has been replaced with a replica and visitors have been leaving messages of congratulations to the curators and Rosie in a comments book next to her ever since, which is very sweet.
Anglo Saxon and Early Ipswich
I walked through a glass door into another part of the museum that houses lots of original artefacts and replicas from Suton Hoo that tell the early story of Ipswich complete with Anglo Saxon dressing-up clothes and the life size humanish looking models you see in all regional museums. One was holding a tool over a piece of metal and looked like he’d been trying for a long time to decide whether or not to hit it, another was of a woman who seemed to be in a similar quandary over whether she should continue with her weaving.
I began to look around and was drawn over to a display inviting me to create an Anglo Saxon name for myself, all you had to do was spin two discs – one with prefixes and another with suffixes – and hey presto! Anglo Saxon name! I spun the wheels and was rewarded with Fri-Wyn or ‘Free-Joy’ in the modern English translation.
I was just getting interested in a display explaining the roots of early Ipswich when the door to the room swung open again and two ex-pupils from the school I work at walked in.
“Oh it’s you” said the first one.
“You ust to work at Westbourne didn’t-cha?” said the second.
“Hello, yes I still do” I said
“It’s a dump” said one of them very matter-of-factly
“How’s my brother doin’?” asked the other
The conversation kept going. I won’t bore you with the whole thing, but the best thing to come out of it was a mildly humorous moment when I asked one of them what they were doing at college now and thought they said geography when they had actually said photography. By the time I had managed to escape, one of the security men arrived ringing a bell and announced it was closing time and that I needed to leave the museum. The rest of the rooms would have to wait for another visit.
Bones and Fossils Gallery
I left myself a lot longer before closing-time
when I next returned to the museum. I started in the long rectangular room that houses the museum’s considerable collection of bones and fossils. I began prowling up and down the cases looking for something that took my interest. Along one wall were some heavy Victorian display cases displaying the skeletons of various animals as they would have been arranged in life (you really can’t move for dead animals in Ipswich Museum). Apart from bones and fossils this room also devotes itself to telling the story of Suffolk’s geological past over the previous millennia, unfortunately, although I really tried I just couldn’t get passionate about changes in soil composition so I thought it was time to move on.
The main things that I took away from this room were that thousands of years ago some elephants used to be a lot bigger than they are currently and that they had straight tusks. The other was that lions used to be a common enough animal to find in the wild around Ipswich about 210,000 years ago, where, according to an archaeological dig under Ipswich’s Stoke railway tunnel, they were busy chasing red deer.
The Bird Room
You could never accuse Ipswich Museum of being obtuse with their labelling of rooms, the Bird Room is, as advertised, a room with lots of birds in it. I’m not really sure what else to tell you about the bird room, apart from to say it is impressive to see so many different breeds of bird from all over England and Scotland all in one place and it appeals to all ages if the
enthusiastic French gentleman and his granddaughter were anything to go by. To be honest, this wasn’t my favourite part of the museum; all the dead animals with their vacant faces and fake eyeballs were beginning to get to me by this point, so I quickly made for the exit. Before I reached it however, I came to the pièce de résistance of the room – the Bass Rock Case. This full size diorama, that includes fifty-two seabirds, aims to recreate a scene from the Bass Rock gannet colony off the coast of Scotland complete with eggs, seaweed and bird poo running down the cliff face. The scene was created thanks to the legacy left by Lord John Harvey in 1902, this struck me as quite an unusual thing to request in your last will and testament, but each to their own.
I walked into the Egyptian Gallery, which didn’t exist when I used to visit as a child. I was pleasantly surprised at just how good this new section (opened in 2010) was. For a start there are lots of genuinely impressive artefacts on loan from the British Museum on display including some large statues of Various Egyptian gods, some of which are around 4,000 years old. In fact, Ipswich Museum already had an impressive stock of items from Ancient Egypt donated in the early 20th century by friends of the Museum who were keen to prevent grave robbers from getting their hands on them for profit.
Some of the more impressive objects are kept within a central chamber inside the gallery that is accessible by a doorway for adults and a giant mouse hole in the wall for children to crawl through. There were a lot of families with small children around me at this point and the kids were going crazy for the Egyptian history, when they saw the mouse hole it sent them over the edge and for a good ten minutes it was hard to move for running, screaming, crawling children.
After the families had departed I went into the chamber too (through the door not the mouse hole, although I was tempted). Inside it was really interesting; the curators had thoughtfully placed mirrors at the correct angles to allow you to see inside gold coated masks and sarcophaguses. Seeing the stained cloth inside of the masks particularly forced me to think of these objects not just as pieces of intricate, beautiful art work, but also as the shelters of human remains that they were. It was a bit spooky, but also very fascinating. The other thing that stood out to me was just how many things the Egyptians used to mummify, not just people and cats, but birds and crocodiles, pretty much anything they could get their hands on it seemed.
I walked out of the Egyptian Gallery,
looped my way around the balcony of the Natural History Gallery looking down at all the rigid animals below and made my way down the main staircase back to the reception. It was time to go, there was still more to see but that’s plenty enough for this post, and I think I’ve taken up enough of your time already. Anyway, if you’re still interested by this point what are you doing? You’ve clearly got enough time to go and make a visit yourself.