It’s taken me six months of burn-out/therapeutic collections-management volunteerism, but I finally got back on the visit-a-museum horse. So to ease back in, we picked my favourite type: natural history/discovery centre. We decided to check out the Liverpool World Museum; making the decision mostly on the proximity to the rail station (Dog Wonder is fine by himself, but I worry) and that mixed (child free!) company wasn’t in the mood to visit an art gallery. I was also under the impression the museum opened recently, but according to their website the refurbishment and re-opening happened back in 2005. Unfortunately, the fact it’s over six years old makes my retrospective slightly harsher.
The museum building is very impressive, though there’s work being done on the facade. The actual entrance, less so. It was a rain-free day and just after Christmas, so we were worried that it wasn’t actually open. The entry hall is huge though, and I felt a little swamped. I liked the modern structure of steel and glass built within an old stone building though, it seems to be a very British way of re imagining old Georgian+ spaces, that you don’t get anywhere in the States. They didn’t have English maps, but the interpreter at the desk was very helpful. I grabbed one en français anyways (four years of university French is at least good for enabling my dead tree fetish).
The open entry hall had few objects, but I loved the hanging cast (?) of the pterosaur and the interpretation of the totem pole. I spent a summer interning at the National Museum of American History during graduate school and was lucky enough to get an understanding of collections justification, handling and display at the National Museum of the American Indian as part of the internship program which educated me so much about the wealth of issues behind Native American culture in museums; last year I had several opportunities to see archetype and symbol appropriation/interpretation done wrong, so it is nice to see it done right in other cultural spaces.
We went floor by floor. The aquarium was small, with an emphasis on native sea life and a strange video that appeared to be some sort of scare-fiction about the effects of warming on the world seas. Unfortunately, England’s rocky underwater coast line didn’t make for the most charismatic display, but I did really enjoy seeing the dog fish spy-hopping behaviours. The small amount of sea life paradoxically made me spend more time observing, and it was quite enjoyable actually taking the time to identify each type of fish. Not something I would do at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, for example!
The Bug House was unfortunately more targeted towards a “family audience” and became more of a browse and recoil expedition through a strangely unfurnished space. I would have appreciated more adult interpretation, especially with the leaf cutter ant display. I wasn’t sure what type of ants I was supposed to be seeing (ants which prey on the leaf cutter workers were listed). I also really wanted to know more about the use of copper. The rope the ants traversed between food source and colony had copper posts at intervals, and the food source was in a copper box. Obviously, it was a deterrent, but why? And more to the point, would it work in my house? Kidding aside, it is a missed opportunity for the most charismatic exhibit in the Bug House.
Leafcutter ant display
The museum had a large collection of specimens on display in what appeared to be a community learning space, which I appreciated. They were also in the Discovery Centres (more to follow). We really enjoyed browsing them, however they were all set at kid-level, so by the end of the day my back made me painfully aware that I am An Old and that I probably ruined my spine with all of the pre-Kindle abuse it’s endured. I guess we’re probably a strange set of adults who find pressed insect specimens really interesting though, so I can’t think of a better alternative in terms of best serving the appropriate audience. At least they’re out to look at!
I loved the Discovery Centres. There were two: one for natural history and another for world cultures. Unlike the under-utilised gallery spaces, these were chock-a-block with objects to observe and explore, giving it very much a wunderkammer feeling. The interpreter in Natural History was incredibly friendly and enthusiastic; I had an enjoyable conversation with him about the size of the Emperor Penguin taxidermy (which comes up past my waist!). World Cultures had a fun activity with writing your name in Icelandic ruins; unfortunately there weren’t enough of the repetitive letters to spell my sister’s name or my own. The World Cultures centre was also a good hide-out from the horrific World Cultures Gallery welcome video.
Please touch? Yes please.
The Anglo-Saxon/Greek/Roman gallery was sparse (sensing a theme?), which was fine as there was more than enough in the Egyptian gallery to interest. Several mummies in various stages of unwrap and display, with interesting interpretation and justification. It was so nice to browse in leisure, considering my last big mummy experience was in the heaving, conveyer-belt gallery experience at the British Museum. It was also nice to actually see the mummies and the science. The last time I visited the Manchester Museum, there was a whole big to-do with signs and gallery traffic shaping informing visitors that if they were “sensitive to the display of human remains” they should turn back and other nonsense. For a time, I believe they actually put the mummies behind a screen so it wasn’t possible to see the wrapped remains, which seems to defeat the purpose. I think it was tied into a separate display of a Bog Man and some fuss with a group of British pagans called Honouring the Ancient Dead, which is an entirely different post about valuing science, cultural (mis)appropriation, and how casual colonialism remains alive and well. I usually don’t like museum videos, but the ones in this gallery were actually both delightful and informative. I only wish they had a faster replay rate, I missed several because I couldn’t be bothered standing around for the five minutes waiting for it to boot up. Also of note, the translated hieroglyphics wall, which was hysterical, not the least for the Northern accents reading out complaints about some fairly quotidian issues!
We had high hopes for the Dinosaur gallery, but it was a huge disappointment. I’m supposed to make a special mention of the “depressing dinosaur diarrhea diorama,” which sums up pretty much all of the dioramas and models on the floor. It wasn’t even that they were out-dated, just sparse and honestly embarrassing.
I guess they didn’t have enough dinosaur-related materials to fill up even part of the gallery, so it transitioned into another sad series of natural history/climate change warning dioramas. I think. There was a big global warming wall, but it was also dark, because that’s how it is in the rain forest (?). The taxidermy wolf pack was the high point, I guess because I always am amazed at how big wolves are (especially since I now see my achondroplastic dog as standard). There was a child who needed a diaper change wafting through with its grownups, which was apt. Dishonourable mention also goes to the “Time Tunnel” dioramas.
There was an animatronic dinosaur display on loan from London, but it had a charge, so we didn’t do it. YMMV.
We thought World Cultures was the last floor, but Sissy and I had a bad case of museum face* at that point and breezed through as there was little of interest in my historical emphasis. It was a standard collection of artefacts, next-to-nothing on India, heavy on Africa and Japan. I really expected more from English museums with regards to Indian objects; how many years of colonialist plunder and you’ve only got enough collected to stick in the museum of decorative arts?** Really? However, I should point out I enjoyed the Tibetan Buddhism room, and the contextual displays. It was different from the standard ethnography.
Of special note is the aforementioned horrible welcome video. You can’t escape it in the gallery. It’s delivered in some kind of strange rhyming meter which I think was supposed to compliment and highlight with poet/performance artist Levi Tafari’s accent and delivery. I say it was iambic pentameter because that’s the only one I can remember from AP English Lit. It was painful. Some words are not meant to rhyme with each other. Must be experienced to be believed (no embed—lame!).
Just when we thought we were done, there was another floor with the Planetarium and exhibits about time and space. Time was clocks. Space was about space, admittedly, but there was little to interest me as it was Eurocentric to a fault, and it wouldn’t be fair to make anything other than neutral observations, with the recommendations of visiting Air & Space and Kennedy if you ever have the opportunity. The Blue Marble picture was also randomly hanging up at the top of a wall in the dark with no credit or label.
All in all: Enjoyable day out, especially because admission is free. I would not want to be here during school holidays as some parts would be unbearable with too many kids. I would not consider it worthwhile to make a trip into Liverpool specifically to visit this museum.
We’ll be doing IWM: North in the next few days as I really want to see the War Correspondents exhibition before it closes on the 2nd. MOSI may also be on the agenda too.
*That face you make when you’ve been at a museum for too long and your brain hurts, usually exasperated by the one slow reader in your group who has to read every. single. display. slowly.
**Don’t get me wrong, I friggin’ love the V&A.