A merry night with old relics

A torch-lit trail through the mummy's tomb marked a new stage in the life - or afterlife - of an Aberdeen museum

Guests were able to practise their mummification techniques and investigate a cadaver in the anatomy theatre when they visited the Marischal Museum in Aberdeen last month, before its temporary closure. There was a party atmosphere for the Last Night at the Museum event when more than 400 visitors explored displays by torchlight, with live musical entertainment and a fancy-dress parade.

Building work is about to begin on transforming the front part of Marischal College into new headquarters for Aberdeen City Council. The University of Aberdeen's Marischal Museum will be temporarily housed in Old Aberdeen during the building work, which is expected to last two years.

The museum, dating back to 1786, has a collection of gifts made by graduates, staff and friends of the university since the 18th century. There are 70,000 items in the collection, many of which are of national importance - including exhibits of Scottish militaria, African and Oceanic ethnography, classical coins and Egyptology.

It also houses the only permanent exhibition dedicated to the north east of Scotland, with hundreds of objects and photographs illustrating the history of the region, from the first settlers 8,000 years ago right up to the present day.

"The university museum was designed for teaching students who were preparing to go out as missionaries, doctors or ministers about the people they would be working with. And," explains Alison Parfitt, education and access officer for the university's historic collections, "that was really the function of the museum initially: to educate the students.

"Aberdeen was turning out a lot of doctors and missionaries at that point, so the collection reflects this and the parts of the world where they come from," she continues.

Among those who donated items from their collections was John MacPherson, who trained to be a doctor in Aberdeen and then travelled to Mexico to work, later giving a significant number of items to what was then the Anthropological Museum.

"We have mainly got the Egyptian and classical antiquities - what we would call non-Western ethnography or world cultures, Scottish pre-history and numismatics, which is coins," Ms Parfitt adds.

Last Night at the Museum is a Europe-wide event, which the Marischal Museum first staged in May 2007, along with the university's Zoology Museum. It attracted more than 1,000 visitors. Its success encouraged the organisers to stage last month's event to mark the temporary closure of the museum with an exciting range of activities for adults and young children.

"People were able to go on torch-lit trails in the Egyptian displays which had been turned into the mummy's tomb. You could go and find out about anatomy in Dr Moir's Anatomy Theatre," Alison Parfitt continues.

"The first curators of the museum were in fact anatomists, so there was quite an emphasis on collecting human remains, some of which have been repatriated recently," she says.

Around 3,500 children visit the Marischal Museum with their schools during the year and they will able to continue visiting the temporary collection, on display across the university campus in Old Aberdeen.

During the last night young visitors were also able to take part in a quiz about bones and a fancy-dress competition inspired by the Night at the Museum theme.

The Marischal also has a range of interactive elements for young visitors: "There's a Pictish stone for doing rubbings; a life-size mummy doll you can take the organs in and out of; there are various craft activities such as making masks or doing nameplates with Egyptian hieroglyphs and there are hands-on archaeological materials to feel," Ms Parfitt says.

"An interim exhibition venue will be opened in Old Aberdeen while these displays are shut, but study access and schools service and temporary exhibitions will continue across campus.

"It's really important that there is access to all the displays online. You can see a full record of museum displays in the virtual museum, and you can access an illustrated database of 3,000 of our objects at that site," she adds. "There are ongoing projects to make more objects and records available on the museum's website.".

- www.abdn.ac.ukvirtualmuseum.

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