Explorers Take Centre Stage At Revamped Torquay Museum

By Caroline Lewis | 31 July 2007
wooden carved statue of a Chinese god with ornate clothing and holding his index finger upwards before him

Chinese god statue, from the Paget-Blake collection. Courtesy Torquay Museum

Torquay Museum is celebrating the completion of its new Explorers Gallery, which is now the showpiece of the oldest museum in Devon following a £1.39m refurbishment project.

Nearly everything on display has been spruced up by conservators, and there are some real star exhibits to see in the collections in both the Explorers Gallery and the rest of the Museum, from explorer Colonel Fawcett’s false teeth to fascinating artefacts from Opium Wars era China.

The new Gallery will be officially opened on August 2 2007 by modern day explorer Nick Danziger. Danziger, a photojournalist, author and documentary maker, will arrive fresh from an expedition to Ethiopia to cut the ribbon.

Torquay’s explorers have collected many interesting artefacts during their travels across the globe, and items in the Museum collections have been classified as both regionally and nationally important. The 24 Hour Museum quizzed Curator Barry Chandler about what’s on show…

“Our mummy is quite a highlight – everyone likes a mummy,” he said, “and it’s in a really beautiful coffin.”

“We’ve put it through a CT scanner and made a reconstruction of the boy inside so you can see what we think he looks like.”

“That came from Lady Leeds, the daughter of Paris Singer [from the family of sewing machine fame]. She brought it back in the 1920s and we’ve had it since the 1950s.”

black and white photo of a man in early 20th century dress with a large moustache and beard

Colonel Percy Fawcett. Courtesy Torquay Museum

Barry is pleased to say the coffin is looking better than ever after being cleaned. The reconstruction of the boy within has been named Psamtek-ankh by the Museum, meaning ‘may Psamtek live again’. He wears an Eye of Horus necklace and is holding a toy called a tip-cat. Psamtek-ankh was just two to four years old when he died about 2,400 years ago.

“Then there are items from the Opium Wars – a Chinese soldier’s coat, weapons, and smoking items - pipes and jars,” continued Barry.

“These come from Charles Paget-Blake who served on the Cornwallis – the ship on which the Nanking Treaty was signed – so they’ve got a lovely provenance.”

A standout item in this collection of Chinese artefacts is a child’s robe in imperial yellow, which was in bad condition before the conservation work. Both this work and the building improvements were largely enabled with a grant of £960,500 from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The loot-collecting Dr Paget-Blake was also the source of a rather rare item from Hawaii, a 'god-stick' figure, of which there are only about 100 in the world. The ship's surgeon labelled it incorrectly, though, as coming from the Congo.

figure of an Egyptian boy in a loin cloth

The reconstruction of the mummified boy named Psamtek-ankh. Courtesy Torquay Museum

Another intrepid local was Colonel Percy Fawcett, whose trunk, false teeth and school hat are now at the Museum. His family have also been kind enough to lend his medals from the Royal Geographical Society and First World War, and his DSO.

Fawcett went missing trying to locate a lost city in Brazil in 1925, having left instructions that if he did not return, no-one should look for him as they might suffer the same fate. Ignoring his advice, scores of people have since gone to look for him and lost their lives. No-one knows for sure to this day whether he upset a local tribe or indeed, according to one theorist, founded a commune in the jungle and lived out his days there.

Frank Browning was another of Torquay’s sons who led an exciting life, joining Scott on part of the ill-fated Antarctic expedition. Browning was a member of the Northern Shore Party, who did not carry on with Scott’s team all the way to the South Pole but carried out geological exploration at a place called Evans Cove. The Party was expecting to be picked up by the Terra Nova ship after a month, but thick ice got in the way.

“The Terra Nova never picked them up, and they were left stranded, and ended up having to live in an ice cave,” said Barry. “They eventually decided to walk back to the base camp, which was 300 miles away.”

“Frank got the sickest of the party – I think it was the diet of penguins and seal. It’s an amazing story!”

photo of a museum gallery with a Roman soldier helmet in the foreground

The Romans are coming! A rare exhibition of Roman artefacts in Devon. Courtesy Torquay Museum

If you get to Torquay Museum before September 23 2007, you’ll also have the rare opportunity of seeing the remains from Devon’s only Roman burial. (The Museum doesn’t often have exhibitions on the Romans, as the empire didn’t have much of a foothold down there.)

The body, of a young woman aged between 16 and 22, was found just 60cm under the surface of a back garden in the Hookhills area of Paignton a few years back.

“It’s amazing that it went 1,600 years without being discovered,” commented Barry. “We’re learning a lot from her, for example about people’s diets then.”

Oyster shells and pieces of pottery from the burial marked her out as being from a Romanised settlement.

Torquay Museum is also lucky to be hosting the Made in Africa touring exhibition from the British Museum until October 6 2007. The exhibition features stone tools from the African ‘cradle of civilisation’, Olduvai Gorge, and some of the original tools are available for handling sessions. A great chance to handle some of the oldest known man-made artefacts in the world, dating back a whopping two million years.

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