MUSEUM100: one hundred years of the Manx Museum Search of iMuseum

MUSEUM100: one hundred years of the Manx Museum

Posted on 14.08.2023

Manx National Heritage’s MUSEUM 100 exhibition and podcast celebrates the centenary of the Manx Museum. The exhibition features a kaleidoscope of over 150 objects and treasures from the Manx Museum’s collections, many of which are on public display for the first time. In a series of Manx Radio podcasts, Manx Museum workers discuss the objects and archives they love.

Image ref: PG/5571. Opening of Noble’s Hospital, 1886. The building was to become the Manx Museum

Podcast pick: a 3-minute introduction to the beginnings of the Manx Museum by Katie King, Curator of Art & Social History.

Image ref: PG/5473. Philip Moore Callow Kermode, the first Director of the Manx Museum


The Art of People

The National Art Gallery opened at the Manx Museum in 1936. The collection mostly consisted of works of art by the celebrated Manx artist, John Miller Nicholson and pieces on loan from wealthy patrons. Today the collection contains more than 6,000 works by established Manx artists or by artists inspired by the Isle of Man, dating from the seventeenth century to the modern day. The collection belongs to the people of the Isle of Man.

Drawn together over 100 years the collection is varied and eclectic. It includes everything from the earliest-known views of the Isle of Man and engaging portraits of Manx society figures, to our internationally celebrated internment art collection, which provides a rare insight of life behind barbed wire.  We have works by leading British artists including Archibald Knox, Bryan Kneale, Kevin Atherton, Martin Hearne and Michael Sandle. All of them were taught at the influential Douglas School of Art, set up by John Miller Nicholson and his contemporaries in the 1880s to nurture Manx artistic talent.

The collection celebrates the Isle of Man as a source of artistic inspiration, with artists capturing the natural beauty of the Island or recording the people and world around them. Our older works of art tell rich stories about the Island’s history, providing glimpses into Manx life long before photography; whilst our modern pieces reflect something about who we are as a nation and where we want to go.

Podcast pick: Mrs Karran. In this episode, Curator of Art and Social History Matthew Richardson looks at an unusual portrait of a local woman, which blends east and west.

Image ref: 2012-0086. Portrait of Mrs Elizabeth Karran

The Ordinary

We collect objects connected to all Manx people. When the Museum first opened this was a revolutionary approach. Whilst museums across the water were collecting antiquities and curios from far-off lands, we were collecting everyday objects belonging to ordinary people.

Almost immediately the Manx Museum embarked on an ambitious folk life collecting mission. Society was changing rapidly and capturing ‘the old ways’ before they were lost was a priority. A dedicated group of folk life collectors endeavoured to record as much information as they could about the traditional way of life before it vanished forever. As they interviewed the older generations they also collected things like butter bowls, spinning wheels and turf spades, the foundations of a new folk culture collection.

New galleries opened at the Manx Museum to celebrate ‘the ordinary’ and in 1938 Cregneash Folk Museum was opened. This was the first open-air museum dedicated to folk culture in the British Isles and its aim was to present the richness of everyday heritage to the people of the Isle of Man. The Manx Folk Life Survey meanwhile chronicled the voices, language, songs, stories and traditions of the Island. Today it remains an invaluable source of information about our traditional way of life.

We still follow the same fundamental principle of capturing the stories of the people of the Isle of Man told through their possessions and keeping them safe for the future.

Podcast pick: Curator of Art and Social History Katie King gives us the story of one her favourite items in the collection – the Juan Watterson family armchair.

Image ref: 1954-4467. The Juan ‘Nan’ Watterson family chair


Beautiful Things

The collections in our care are diverse. Some tell stories of a lost way of life, others are simply beautiful. They demonstrate that the Isle of Man has been an inspiration to creativity for thousands of years.

Archaeological discoveries reveal that the earliest people living on the Island valued beautiful things as much as we do today. The earliest pottery pieces in our collections bear the fingerprints of the person who decorated it 5,000 years ago.  The importance the people of the Viking age placed on beauty and wealth is exemplified by the Pagan Lady’s necklace – one of the most striking pieces in our collections.

The Isle of Man’s stone cross collection highlights the artistic talent of the people who carved these monuments over 1,000 years ago. In more recent times internationally celebrated Manx artist Archibald Knox brought the art of the Manx crosses to a worldwide audience through his metalwork designs. He in turn has influenced current generations of Manx artists.

We continue to collect beautiful things. From art made in the internment camps, to ceramics, jewellery, glass and sculpture, all reflect the creativity of people inspired by the Isle of Man and its stories.

Podcast pick: Allison Fox, Curator of Archaeology, tells us about one of the most beautiful objects in all of the Manx National Heritage collections – commonly known as the Pagan Lady’s necklace.

Image ref: 1984-0016/20. The Pagan Lady’s Necklace


The Natural History Collection

Our Natural History Collection contains thousands of specimens gathered by scientists and naturalists over nearly two hundred years. They show the uniqueness of the Isle of Man, which developed slightly different habitats and microclimates since it became an Island some 8,500 years ago. The collection contains both historic and modern specimens, the most famous being the Giant Deer skeleton and the huge Sei Whale – the largest specimen in our care.

The Natural History Collection falls into four categories: Botany (plants), Zoology (animals and birds), Mycology (fungi) and Geology (rocks and fossils).  Each specimen has information about who collected it, when and where. This is like taking a snapshot of that place, what condition it’s in and what lives there. Some of the tiniest things in our collection are beetles and there are examples here on display. They were collected by an entomologist who saw how important it was to know what was going on with our biodiversity even on a minute scale. We can use the information from these insects to track how the environment changes over time and figure out the causes.

Collecting and observing our natural history has never been more important. New knowledge can help conservation. We can learn about the impacts of the climate emergency and pesticide use, improve our understanding of biodiversity, evolution, and population genetics, to name a few. You can’t extract DNA from a photograph or sample it for chemical residues.

Podcast pick: Curator of Natural History, Laura McCoy, looks at the taxidermy mount of a high-flying bird – the Whooper Swan.

Image ref: 2000-0088. Whooper Swan


Caring for the Collections

The National Collections belong to the people of the Isle of Man. We will care for them forever, keeping them safe, protecting them from deterioration and making them accessible.

We may occasionally restore objects to their original condition, but more often we aim to minimise further decay and preserve them for as long as possible. We use scientific measurements and data to do this.

Most of our collections are in storage. We monitor the stores for pests and mould, and log temperature and humidity levels, identifying any damage or areas of concern. For objects on display it’s important to control light, pollution, humidity and temperature and to look for signs of damage. Every day we examine and clean objects from our collections, learning and discovering more about them, as well as new and innovative ways to do our work. We make predictions about how objects might degrade and change over time, deciding how best to store and display them. For example, we only display sensitive works of art for short periods in order to preserve the colour of the pigments.

Many of the artefacts in MUSEUM 100 have been drawn from our stored collections and have never been on display before. All have had conservation work to get them display-ready, with some providing unique and unusual challenges – from rebuilding the engine of our Renault motorcar, to restoring a rare Japanese portrait of Mrs Karran, to dressing Vida La Fierce’s outfit for maximum impact.

Podcast pick: Library and Archives Conservator, Emma La Cornu, tells us about a glass display bottle of lavender salts from an old Douglas chemist shop from the mid 1800s – and her work to conserve the label.

Image ref: 1967-0245. Bottle of Lavender Salts


Archaeology – Stones, Bones & Everything in Between

People have made the Isle of Man their home for the past 10,000 years, but only from recent centuries do we have written records for Manx life.  To understand what life was like before then and to satisfy our curiosity about our past, we have to rely on finding, cataloguing and analysing the things people left behind.  

Archaeology can tell us what their homes were like, what meals they ate, what clothes and jewellery they wore, and what games they played.  Artefacts can help us understand how people marked the passing of those who had died and how their commemorations changed over time.  Clusters of chance finds as well as careful excavation can show how the Island’s landscape has been altered and adapted over thousands of years.  Gold and silver treasures showing wealth and power, sit alongside ordinary but essential everyday objects made of stone, wood and clay. All have a place in the Manx Museum.

The Archaeology Collection is wonderfully varied.  It includes the tiniest flint tools, 3,000 year old bronze weapons, and brightly coloured glass beads.  The collection contains objects as varied as the fragments of a Viking warrior’s cloak, medieval silver coin hoards, toothbrushes from the 1700s and the real, physical remains of the people of the past.

There are over 35,000 artefacts in the Archaeology Collection, and like those people who made and used them, no two are exactly the same.

Podcast pick: Curator of Archaeology, Allison Fox, tells us about a distinctive type of pot made on the Isle of Man in prehistoric times.

Image: 1973-0011/04. Killeaba bowl


Scientific Discoveries

When Philip Kermode wrote the very first entry in the register of the Manx Museum one hundred years ago, he began a process of preserving artefacts that continues today.  But he couldn’t have dreamed of the stories that can now be told thanks to scientific analysis of all kinds of archaeological artefacts. 

A fragment of hazelnut shell from a prehistoric house can be dated through its Carbon 14 content, telling us to within a few years when it was eaten. A bronze brooch from two thousand years ago can be analysed for the signatures of the different metals it contains, indicating where that metal may have come from.  5,000 year-old pots can be examined for traces of their original contents and signs of colourful decoration.  Science can provide the evidence that helps us to add amazing levels of detail to the picture of the Island’s history and really bring our past to life.

By collecting and curating artefacts, the evidence that science reveals can be shared, and the story of our past on the Isle of Man becomes more vibrant.  And although analysis may not be possible or appropriate for every artefact now, by providing a ‘forever home’ in the Manx National Collections, we are ready for what the future may offer.  One hundred years from now, who knows what our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be able to uncover about the people behind the artefacts that we care for today.

Podcast pick: The giant deer skull. Curator of Natural History, Laura McCoy tells us about the giant deer skull found in recent years on the west coast of the Island.

Image ref: 2018-0070. Giant Deer Skull


The Library & Archives

The Manx Museum’s first librarian, William Cubbon, began gathering a national library and archive for the Isle of Man. The collecting continues to this day. We hold a myriad of manuscripts, books, photographs, maps, films and sound recordings, which help tell our Island’s story from the 14th century to today. Everything we hold is accessible to everyone, and all are welcome to explore in our library.

Our archives are unique. Once people felt the need to communicate using the written word, then our thoughts, lists, instructions and histories could be kept beyond the grave – and keep them we do. From the earliest stories passed down in the Chronicles of the Kings of Man and The Isles, to modern records of committees and businesses.

There is power and wonder in the information we hold. They tell our nation’s story, from our role in seismic worldwide events to the nitty-gritty of everyday life. Reading a letter or a diary can provide an intimate glimpse into a life lived long ago, enabling us to experience a personal connection through time. Newspapers, advertisements, posters, cards and flyers help us document everyday life. Books written about the Isle of Man are collected, both fact and fiction. The visible language of photography, prints and drawings provide a window into the past; whilst the film and sound recordings bring people to life.

Today a worldwide audience can enjoy access to our extraordinary collections as we continue to digitise records for researchers, family historians and enthusiasts via our digital collections platform

Podcast pick: Library and Archive Assistant, Kim Holden, looks at a tourist map of the Isle of Man and Street map of Douglas from 1899.

Old tourist map of the Isle of Man from 1899


Visit the MUSEUM100 exhibition, open until Sunday 29th October 2023 at the Manx Museum, Douglas.

💻You can subscribe to the #MUSEUM100 podcast series and listen to previous episodes here.

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