In Haunt

With over 12,000 objects from at least 65 locations across Egypt and Sudan, Bolton Museum’s Egyptology Collection is one of the most significant in the country: opening up this fascinating ancient culture to a modern audience. Now a complete overhaul of the exhibition space has seen many more artefacts come onto display in brand-new immersive galleries within ‘Bolton’s Egypt’. Here visitors can progress through representations of the stages of life, preparation for the afterlife and death – including a full-size recreation of the tomb of Pharaoh Thutmose III.

Bolton Gallery

Expanding across five varied rooms, ‘Bolton’s Egypt’ is an exhibition like no other – allowing people of all ages to see truly ancient artefacts from unique angles. The revamped gallery space was designed by Leach Studios and part of a wider £3.8 million refurbishment of the beautiful Bolton Museum, based inside the town centre’s Le Mans Crescent.

 It is difficult not be enchanted by the beautiful centrepoint of Bolton’s Egypt ‘Land and People’ gallery for example, consisting of a series of glass archways to walk through, each one showcasing items from Ancient Egyptian livelihoods: from shabtis (small funeral statues) to jewellery and even makeup.

Two illustrative panels spanning 26-feet guide the public through this part of the exhibition, decorated with a range of scenes and symbols loaded with meaning. Rather than over-saturated with technology, Bolton’s approach to displaying the artefacts crucially lets the history itself do the talking. The expanded space of the gallery and its unique approach to presentation means that over 2,000 Egyptian items can be on display at any one time (the rest of the extensive collection is kept in professional storage).

Yet if this was not impressive enough, it is the replica tomb that has received further acclaim, given its worldwide significance. Visitors can step into the full-size, to-scale replica tomb of Thutmose III (a Pharaoh estimated to have reigned between 1479-1425 BC), which is the only replica of its kind outside Egypt. Thutmose III was nicknamed the ‘Napoleon of Ancient Egypt’ due to massively expanding the Empire during his rule – which lasted over 50 years - and following his death was buried in Egypt’s now widely known place of ancient burial: The Valley of The Kings.

Bolton in the Tomb

Created to millimetre accuracy of the Egyptian original using 3D laser scanning, even the cracks on the walls of Bolton’s replica are the same as those in the real tomb, which was discovered in 1898. The whole room is covered with designs that tell the tale of how the dead Pharaoh will travel through the underworld and be reborn: an Ancient Egyptian story called the Amduat (also known today as ‘The Book of the Hidden Chamber’).

There is also a body inside the replica tomb – but it is not the body of Thutmose III, which still lies in Egypt. Instead, a mummified man (known as ‘The Unknown Man’) occupies a respectful, honoured space within: his identity still historically uncertain, but believed to possibly be the son of Rameses II (the third king in the 19th Egyptian Dynasty who is also known as Rameses The Great). How the body came to be in a woman’s coffin is also unknown.

 ‘The Unknown Man’ is believed to have been wealthy during his life, as he still has most of his teeth and well-cut fingernails – these being signs of a good lifestyle and higher status. Donated to Bolton Museum in the 1920s, the mummified body had previously been used as an ornament in the drawing room of a house; Egyptology and the display of mummies was after all once seen as a fashionable pursuit amongst some social circles. This fascination with Egyptology had also expanded into other areas of culture at the time – with Gothic Literature being a notable example.  There was already a growing interest, for example, in the human body and its preservation, as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein of 1818 possibly pre-empted. By the late 19th and into the 20th century, there were even ‘mummy unwrapping parties’ taking place – opening up the Ancient Egyptian wrappings for all to see – indicating a possibly unnerving development of this interest and how it linked to Egyptology.

Bolton Tomb

In addition, rumours and stories of ‘mummy’s revenge’ had circulated ever since the era when the Egyptian tombs were entered and explored (Tutankhamun’s curse being a famous example attracting significant public attention by the 20th Century), and it was rather early on that eerie examples began to appear in fiction. The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827) by Jane Webb is a  notable early example of dark mummification themes in a poplar format, whilst Cleopatra: Being an Account of the Fall and Vengeance of Harmachis (1889) considered the subject of ancient curses. The 1890s then saw a particular glut of titles inspired by the unnerving aspects of Egyptology and the possibility of a Pharaoh’s revenge. These included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Ring of Thoth (1890), bestseller of its day The Beetle (1897) by Richard Marsh and Guy Boothby’s Pharos, the Egyptian (1898). Although many people recognise Bram Stoker for Dracula, he had a significant interest in Egyptology too, as is reflected by the themes in his 1903 novel The Jewel of the Seven Stars.

The fashion for Egyptology, seeing and collecting it, was once so dominant that people even took it upon themselves to create ‘fakes’. In turn,  Bolton Museum’s rather disturbing-looking ‘fake mummies’ are not actually what people may first think. Rather than the mummified bodies of Ancient Egyptian children, they are thought to be recreations… one even containing a skull made of plaster under the wrappings. It was possible that these were peddled on the Victorian black market – though there is also the possibility that these were Egyptian originals, used as toys (albeit rather unusual ones!).

The ‘Fake Mummies’ are on display in the first room of ‘Bolton’s Egypt’ which is themed around ‘Obsession’: focusing on how Ancient Egypt has been perceived and treated in popular culture through time. From songs and TV clips to influences in fashion, this interactive area shows the varied ways in which the ancient culture continues to have an impact. This display space then opens onto the panoramic, immersive experience that is the ‘Land and People’ Gallery.Land and People Gallery

Very much celebrating life and the variety of livelihoods in Ancient Egypt, the beautifully-lit glass archways of the gallery are bathed in as much natural light as possible, thanks to plentiful skylights and windows. This allows the innovatively arranged artefacts to be displayed in a fascinating way, with visitors able to see these relics from different perspectives. Collections Access Officer at Bolton Museums Ian Trumble, emphasizes the importance of this viewing experience:

“The Land and People Gallery is designed to celebrate the rich variety of life in Ancient Egypt, as well as the diversity of the landscape. We want to push beyond the stereotypes people may think of when it comes to Ancient Egyptian culture and how it is treated in museums – often just focusing on mummies and pyramids – and instead also look at the fascinating, lively diversity of society and the country itself. From vases and pots with their intricate designs to containers still filled with makeup and even hair extensions from the time: it is important that these objects consider everyday life.”

Ian in Gallery

The artefacts are also arranged, where possible, in chronological order inside the glass archway display cases: starting with the oldest examples on the left and moving to the most recent on the right. Thousands of years can be between objects in the same display case, highlighting the enormity of the period in an immersive way. The natural landscape is also celebrated, with details, samples and taxidermy animals showcasing just some of the varied species which lived in the land.

Following the Land and People Gallery there is a room dedicated to preparation for the afterlife; as this was after all a key practice in Ancient Egyptian culture. The space includes canopic jars (where some of the internal organs were placed during the mummification process) and display cases of yet more shabtis. These little statues are plentiful at Bolton – as they are in many Egyptology collections – made as funeral figurines and designed to carry a purpose, often spells or blessings, when accompanying a person into the afterlife. The more shabtis a person was buried with, the more help they would have in the afterlife, so to speak; hence their popularity. Across the walls, rather fittingly, are illustrations taken from The Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Afterlife in Bolton

Another stand-out and internationally significant feature, especially in this room, is the variety of ancient Egyptian textiles on display – with Bolton Museum holding one of the finest collection of ancient textiles in the world. Bolton, after all, is known for its historically significant textile industry – as the spinning mule, the cotton-spinning machine that went onto play a significant part in the industrial revolution, was invented by Bolton’s own Samuel Crompton in 1779.

During the 19th century, it was ongoing industrial and textile expansion in Bolton which forged some surprising links with Ancient Egypt – and the museum’s collection today. One of the largest and most successful mill companies forged in the town was Barlow and Jones, founded by James Barlow. It was his daughter, Annie (1863-1941) who, whilst studying at University College London, joined the Egypt Exploration Fund (which later became the Egypt Exploration Society). She was appointed as Honorary Local Secretary for the Bolton Region, and therefore worked with the town to raise money for excavations in Egypt and to encourage institutions to fund such projects.

Many institutions in Bolton did get behind research and excavations in Egypt, thanks to Annie’s work, and also received objects from Egypt in return: as was the practice of The Egypt Exploration Society. Hence, increasing numbers of Ancient Egyptian objects began to come to Bolton.  But what to do with them? Annie Barlow asked for her share of the finds to be given to what was The Chadwick Museum.

In turn, it seems very fitting that another one of the rooms in ‘Bolton’s Egypt’ is called ‘The Chadwick Room’; in tribute to the original museum in Bolton where the collection was housed. With design on the walls (and even a tree!) reflecting the surroundings of Queens Park were The Chadwick Museum used to be, this room is a particularly child-friendly space, with a huge dolls house-style display of ancient Egyptian artefacts that have been part of the museum’s collection for many years.

Chadwick Room

But what was The Chadwick and what happened to it? This an area of history really worth further thought, especially considering it explains how the current Bolton Museum came to be based in its current location in the splendour of Le Mans Crescent; a curved street of civic stone buildings which could be reminiscent of the famous Royal Crescent in Bath.

Bolton after all has long been a town of civic pride and provision for its people; as following the adoption of the Libraries Act in 1852, Bolton’s first free-to-use public library was established. This was originally based in Victoria Square,  containing not just books but a growing collection of scientific objects and pieces of natural and historical interest – perhaps a hint of the extensive archives that were come. It was in 1876 that the local doctor and philanthropist Samuel Taylor Chadwick died, leaving not just The Chadwick orphanage to the town,  but donating a sum of £5000 for what he specified as the ‘building, furnishing and maintenance of a Museum of Natural History in the Bolton Park’ (what later became Queens Park). He also specified that this should happen within 4 years and the building had to be free for the public.

In turn, Bolton Corporation took up his wishes and began work on a building in Queens Park in 1878. People involved in the Corporation overseeing the project included a number of local figures of the time such as other philanthropists and industrialists – one being Councillor B. A. Dobson, from a notable cotton manufacturing family, who went onto help significantly with acquiring donations and collections for the museum as it grew. He also opened the museum when it was finished in Queens Park on the 12 June 1884. Considering the importance of the two figures of Chadwick and Dobson to Bolton’s first museum, their statues can still be seen either side of the Town Hall which lies just in front of Le Mans Crescent today.

Therefore, the Chadwick Museum became the obvious place for Annie Barlow to divert her share of the ancient Egyptian artefacts. The museum also became a prominent supporter in its own right of the Egypt exploration society. But these weren’t the only links between The Chadwick and Ancient Egypt.

William Midgley and his son Thomas Midgley, the first two curators at The Chadwick, were also experts in ancient textiles (a range of materials) – and hence examples of this from Ancient Egypt especially interested them. They went onto acquire a particularly large number of textiles from Ancient Egypt; an approach which seemed appropriate given the worldwide status of Bolton as a major industrial, cotton-spinning hub at the time. The curators were fascinated however, in that although Samuel Crompton had invented the spinning mule in the 18th century, the Ancient Egyptians seemed to be producing quality material many thousands of years ago; and in some cases using even finer techniques.Afterlife Gallery

Evidence of such skill can be seen in some of the current museum’s most notable artefacts. Textiles in the collection dating from the Coptic period (300 AD onwards), for example, highlight a period of history where Christianity began to enter Egypt and rather than being buried wrapped in bandages, people began to be buried in finest linens and their best clothes; with such fabrics being on display. Bolton Museum has also supported various excavations over the years in Egypt and Sudan, and is recognised for both its curatorial and research skill in this field. An exciting recent study, for example, has suggested that Bolton Museum holds some of the most historically significant ancient Egyptian linen in the world. Tests, by a team at York University, revealed that one of the linens shows traces linked to early mummification processes taking place up to 1500 years earlier than originally thought.

Findings such as these highlight the ongoing process in not just celebrating but actively researching Egyptology which the Midgleys pioneered during their time as curators at The Chadwick Museum. When Thomas Midgley retired in 1934, Eric Hendy became Curator – with other changes also happening which highlighted the change the museum was about to undergo as it expanded. It was during this decade that work on the iconic Le Mans Crescent  building began and it was advised that the Chadwick Museum, considering its building was in increasing decline, should move into it. The new Le Mans Crescent building where Bolton Museum is now, offered ample space for the growing collection and opened following the war in 1947 – yet it wasn’t until 1956 until the Egyptian collection moved over and the Chadwick building closed for good. The tribute to the building and its history in ‘Bolton’s Egypt’s’ Chadwick Room therefore seems a poignant reminder of a key foundation of Egyptology in the town: especially considering the Chadwick Building itself was demolished in the later 20th century.

 It is also important to remember that Bolton’s vast range of historical artefacts do not just lie in the  Le Mans Crescent building, though this where the Egyptology collection and art gallery are based. There are also other museum buildings to visit in the borough, including two mysterious locations of Hall i’ th’ Wood and Smithills Hall, both of which have their own haunted and mysterious histories. A visit to ‘Bolton’s Egypt’ however, is a highly recommended first stop.

By Emily Oldfield




  1. Anne of Badari
    The new displays are a fascinating insight into the great riches held in Bolton's museum. As a 6th former interested in a career in museums in the mid1970s I was lucky to be a volunteer at Bolton Museum. Beginning at the bottom (varnishing the cupboards just bought for the botanical specimens, the herbarium,) I was gradually trusted to work on the local history and archaeology collections. One of the highlights was working on the prehistoric pots from the Badarian culture, before mummification was developed. Matching the pots in the collection against the published accounts by Flinders Petrie was an honour and gave me a great opportunity to develop skills in Archaeology. So it's great to see these old friends finally on display. The Tuthosis III tomb on display is a great replica and gives many people an opportunity to experience Egyptian tombs without travelling, though it is not the most typical art from tombs. Overall, a great and accessible display and I learnt and enjoyed a lot.

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