Hidden Treasure Trail 9 - The People's Museum In Manchester

By Caroline Lewis | 15 May 2006
People's Museum logo

Welcome to the Hidden Treasure Trails on Culture24, exploring the hidden treasures of the People’s Museum.

The BBC series People’s Museum explores the most fascinating objects on show at museums all over the country and asks the viewer to vote for their favourites - what they would put on display in a museum. A masterful portrait, a scientific first, or perhaps a touching journal? It's up to the people!

Culture24 is revisiting the featured venues and more, taking another look at at some of the amazing artefacts also featured in the People's Museum programme.

We have arranged them into region-by-region trails. Read on to discover some of Liverpool’s rich collections and surprising finds – we hope it inspires you to get out there and visit them for yourself.

The Museum of Science and Industry illuminates the beginnings of electricity and lets the imagination soar in its Air and Space hall. The Imperial War Museum North tells the touching story of the boy who tried to enlist and more stories from the dark and lighter sides of wartime.

Manchester Art Gallery features local and international artists and a beautifully carved Buddha whereas over at the Whitworth the world of textiles can be discovered, plus Napoleon’s wallpaper and an Arts and Crafts archive.

The world’s first industrial city hosts a foremost museum devoted to science and industry. The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester (MSIM) has historic machinery, instruments and appliances that will fascinate and educate, including Arckwright's water frame, which is one of the nominees for the People's Museum.

Electricity played the key role in the development of new technologies over the last century and this is illustrated at MSIM with the Ferranti collection. More than 1,500 objects related to the company founded by electrical wares pioneer Sebastian Ferranti are held.

photo of a piece of early electrical equipment

A Ferranti alternator from 1882. © MSIM

Of particular significance is the Ferranti-Thomson alternator he patented in 1882 (he had to share the credit for inventing it with Sir William Thomson), and the Pegasus 1 mainframe computer built by Ferranti Ltd in the 1950s. You'll also find early televisions and radios in the museum.

You can’t help but be struck by the largest craft in the Air and Space Hall. The Avro Shackleton plane, which could fly for 24 hours and was designed to locate and attack submarines, was built just down the road near Stockport in 1954.

If MSIM sounds a bit like a feast for science and transport lovers, fear not – the retro kitchens and living rooms will entice everyone. Demonstrating how electricity transformed everyday home life, you’ll leave somewhat wiser about the debt you owe to those early electricians.

black and white photo of Marlene Dietrich in a jeep with soldiers

Marlene Dietrich's WWII uniform is on show at the Imperial War Museum North. © Filmmuseum Berlin - Marlene Dietrich Collection

It’s widely accepted that we all owe a debt to those who gave their lives in the World Wars, too. The Imperial War Museum (IWM) North, set inside a sculpted modern building on Salford Quays, tells the story of troops and civilians in both wars and more. Opened in 2002, the museum uses lots of innovative interactive and audio-visual displays, like the 3-D timeline that takes visitors through the key events of the last century.

IWM North has on display a nice mixture of the serious and the lighter aspects of war. Thomas Boardman’s handmade ukulele from a Japanese World War II POW camp is the museum's nomination for the People's Museum.

Entertainer Marlene Dietrich’s uniform takes pride of place in the Women and War section, while a letter from a nine-year-old boy asking to enlist in Kitchener’s Army at the beginning of the First World War is poignantly patriotic.

a yellowed letter in child's handwriting adderessed to Lord Kitchener

Letter from nine-year-old Alfie Knight asking to join the army. © IWM North

The artillery piece that fired the first British shell of the First World War is a momentous exhibit that can be seen at the museum. Another first at IWM North is an AV8a Harrier jump jet – the world’s first short take-off and landing aircraft.

Manchester Art Gallery’s collection of fine and decorative arts is internationally renowned and you won’t be disappointed by the displays. William Etty’s painting of Ulysses and the Sirens is in the running for the People's Museum.

Albert Square in Manchester (the second most famous one), was captured on a drizzly day by LS Lowry’s teacher, Adolphe Valette. His impressionist style, combined with the foggy atmosphere of his adopted English city, made for some atmospheric scenes of pre-Second World War Manchester and the gallery holds several prime works as well as this one.

painting of a misty cobbled square with a man pushing a cart in the foreground and a statue and spire behind

Albert Square by Adolphe Valette. Courtesy Manchester Art Gallery

One of the prize pieces of decorative art on show at the gallery comes from China. The Buddha figure, or Bodhisattva, carved from cornelian, is beautiful and unusual, in marbled white and red.

Part of the University of Manchester, the strongest collection is in textiles – a reminder of the days when Manchester supplied the world with printed cottons. It is an etching, however, that has made its way onto the shortlist for the People's Museum - The Ancient of Days by radical painter and poet William Blake.

a coloured illustration of a hog and a woman sitting together in 18th century clothing and surrounds

Beauty and the Beast from the Walter Crane archive at the Whitworth. Courtesy The Whitworth Art Gallery

The Whitworth owns a number of amazingly well preserved tunics once worn by ancient Egyptians. Egyptian tailoring, seemingly, was somewhat simpler than today’s.

Wallpaper is another speciality at the Whitworth. There’s no holding back on intricate patterns in this department. From fine chinoiserie prints to a fragment of the paper that Napoleon had on the walls at St Helena, there’s plenty of inspiration for the adventurous interior decorator!

An incredibly ornamental exhibit is the 17th century casket worked on by a girl called Hannah Smith. She decorated the cabinet in embroidery before she was 12 years old.

Last but not least, the gallery recently acquired an archive of work by Arts and Crafts designer Walter Crane – particularly resonant for the Whitworth as he was once the director for design at Manchester School of Art.

photo of a heavily decorated cabinet

Hannah Smith's casket. Courtesy the Whitworth

More museums with fascinating collections to be found in Manchester...

Manchester boasts a few museums and heritage locations that you may not have visited.

is one of the city’s true unknown museums. Open to the public only on Tuesdays it contains one of the finest police-related collections in the country and is housed in a former police station which was built in 1879 and in use until 1979.

The building is full of memorabilia such as old uniforms, weapons and equipment as well as extensive photographs and documents. The old cells are of course open for examination and are a firm favourite with most visitors.

In the centre of town, near the City Art Gallery, The Portico Library opened in 1806 as a Library and Newsroom and still occupies its original site. Built and stocked through private subscription, early members and users included Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Bronte.

Today, although still a subscription library – special events and exhibitions in the exhibition gallery allow the public a glimpse into a rarefied world of books and learning – all of it underneath an impressive Georgian glass and plaster dome.

From a Private Library to a public one, Chetham’s Library, close to the city Cathedral is the most complete late-medieval residential complex to survive in the north west of England. Dating from the second quarter of the fifteenth century it is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world.

Its cloisters, library and historic rooms offer an insight into the late medieval period and you can even sit in the very corner where Marx and Engels met regularly when they both resided in Manchester.

Click here to go to the BBC People's Museum website and find out more about the featured objects.

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The Hidden Treasure Trails have been produced for The Campaign for Museums by Culture24 with support from the Foyle Foundation.

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