Mummies, look what we found

26th October 2012 at 01:00
A Death on the Nile workshop is allowing pupils to handle ancient wonders at one of Scotland's newest museums. Jean McLeish reveals why the University of Aberdeen's treasures are king.

The best laugh comes when the intestines are pulled out of the body - like a lifetime's supply of linked sausages. The nine-year-olds from Ashley Road Primary are loving it.

Some of their mummies who are here to help are laughing too, watching them unravel the mysteries of mummification and getting a chance to see their children at work.

Right now they are working on a life-sized stuffed doll called Organ Ani and removing her fabric internal organs as part of their workshop on death, ritual and the afterlife in ancient Egypt.

They have been exploring ancient Egypt back in class for several weeks now, working across the curriculum, bringing in science, art, music and drama, history and creative writing.

Their teacher, Sally Peacock, is pleased when the Primary 5s show just how well they remember what they've already learnt in class. They are in good spirits, having escaped school to come to this Death on the Nile workshop in the King's Museum in Old Aberdeen.

This old house on the cobbled high street enjoys one of the finest locations in Aberdeen, looking out over grassy lawns to the University of Aberdeen's Elphinstone Hall and King's College Chapel. Visiting children can play safely out on the grass during their break and in fine weather it's a good place to enjoy a packed lunch.

This is one of Scotland's newest museums, where the University of Aberdeen showcases just a fraction of its vast collection of 300,000 items in regular exhibitions and stages workshops for primary schools.

The collection, formerly on show in the city centre at Marischal Museum, encompasses an eclectic range of items brought back to Aberdeen from all over the globe by travelling scholars, graduates and generous donors. It includes everything from Egyptian artefacts - like those the children are working with today - to scientific instruments, contemporary art, natural history and archaeology.

In this small museum, you can find items like the jaws of a shark, a cup from a 19th-century British Arctic expedition, ancient Egyptian necklaces, a bronze axe head from around 2000BC, the skeletal paw of a polar bear, a Cherokee head-dress and a Gaelic prayer book. All were chosen to form the inaugural exhibition "100 Curiosities in King's Museum", a wonderful, absorbing display which is happily still on show.

Neil Curtis, head of museums at the University of Aberdeen, says this new museum at the heart of the campus is more accessible. "They're incredibly rich collections and I think one of the greatest strengths of it is that sense of diversity, that we can tell stories about almost anything. Any idea, there will be something here to do with it - so it's a wonderful collection for mixing around," he says.

The museum is also an opportunity to introduce children to the university, which stages regular events and festivals to draw young people into the arts, science and music.

"When we have school groups coming they're coming on to campus, so they start feeling that the university campus is theirs and they are here as of right. So it's part of a general approach in the university, trying to engage more with the public and relate its expertise and its collections to everybody, not just for itself," Mr Curtis adds.

Workshops such as today's are free and are held here at the King's Museum and the Special Collections Centre at the University Library, which houses a historic collection of rare books, manuscripts, archive and photographs.

Today's interactive, hands-on session is presented with great energy by Anna Shortland, museum curator (access and learning.) The children wear white gloves to handle some of the university's Egyptian artefacts, deciding which items to bury with a poor farmer and which are for the queen.

"Sometimes the queen would have hundreds, thousands of objects and she'd start gathering them years before she died," Miss Shortland explains.

"So you'd need your pots and bowls to cook and feed yourself and live in the afterlife and you've got jewellery and make-up so you'd look good in the afterlife."

The children enjoy the opportunity to handle these extraordinary relics - clay pots and bowls and pieces of jewellery.

"It's good touching the things because I like to hold things from a long time ago before I was born," says nine-year-old Lewis Jeans. He is especially enthusiastic about this project: "My dad works in Egypt - he works at an oil company for two weeks at a time," he says.

The theme has struck a chord with all the children, who are so excited they're shooting their hands up, desperate to win Miss Shortland's quiz. Workshops like this are designed with a focus on Curriculum for Excellence and museum staff are continually looking for new ways of using their collections to engage children with the past.

Curators such as Anna Shortland also have teaching responsibilities and she's been working with the university's School of Education. "Next week I've got all the PGDE students in for a workshop. I do things like how teachers can work with museums, `learning from objects' training sessions for teachers - so they can use objects in their own teaching in the classroom.

"I'm working with BEd 3 this coming year - they're putting together an exhibition about documenting their teaching and learning practices. So they're looking at how to document their own learning and how to display it in exhibitions."

Ashley Road Primary teacher Sally Peacock has found topics like today's capture children's imagination: "I think all history projects do, because it's like a story. It's like painting a picture of the past.

"They love the Vikings, they love the Romans, they love the Tudors and Stewarts and the Second World War because you can weave it into a story," she says.

This class came to the museum last year to do a workshop on the Vikings, before embarking on ancient Egypt.

"We have made canopic jars, we've written instructions on how to make a mummy and next week we're going to actually make mummies out of mud, rock and plasticine. Just to go out of school and to go into a different environment and look at these things is exciting for them," their teacher says.

There are three exhibitions a year at King's Museum, which are also supported by workshops for children. The inaugural exhibition is a permanent feature - the selection chosen by 100 people of all ages from the university's wide-ranging and sometimes simply weird collection of stuff.

A tiger penis confiscated at Aberdeen Airport has to be one of the more bizarre items among those "100 curiosities in King's Museum". It was seized by customs officers in the 1990s and later discovered by a volunteer going through stored items in the university's Zoology Museum.

"I initially thought it was some kind of seahorse or a musical pipe with dried figs attached, but it turned out to be the dried penis of a large cat, probably a tiger," Laura Dedmon says in the booklet accompanying the exhibition.

Ms Dedmon was one of the 100 contributors invited to pick an item for this contemporary cabinet of curiosities. Each piece has personal resonance for the students, children, academics and local people who also write, often movingly, about their choice.

When she was a child, the museum's curatorial assistant Soraya Kasim used to visit Marischal Museum where the university's collection was previously on show. She says one item stood out.

"It's the Chinese Woman's Bound Foot and I remember being both horrified and intrigued by this foot when I was a child. I was quite jealous I didn't get to pick that one, but it's really good it's back on display so that everyone can have that connection with the object."

Her own choice for 100 Curiosities was an 18th-century model of the eye with spectacles (pictured right). She's been short-sighted since she was young and a regular at the opticians.

"It's a model of an eye with miniature spectacles and I think the idea is that you can actually look through it and see the effect of the lenses," she says. "It's just beautiful and far more attractive than the hulking, clunky machines my optician has. I was just aesthetically attracted to that one."

Too soon it's going home time for the young Egyptologists from Ashley Road Primary. Andrew Robertson, 9, says he's enjoyed this taste of ancient Egypt at the University of Aberdeen. "But my favourite thing is dinosaurs," he whispers.

Go ahead, explore some more

King's Museum offers primaries free workshops on the Romans, Picts, Vikings and Victorians.

Children get the opportunity to handle artefacts from the university's collections and teachers are provided with packs detailing the content and the Curriculum for Excellence experiences and outcomes.

As well as Death on the Nile: Ancient Egypt, children in P2-7 can attend workshops on Touching the Past: the Romans, Revealing the North: Picts and Vikings, and The Way it Was: the Victorians.

There's also a workshop called A Cabinet of Curiosities: create an exhibition in your classroom, which will show children how to set up their own exhibition back at school.

Three exhibitions a year run at King's Museum with related workshops for schools.

The current exhibition, Food Stories, is staged in partnership with the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health. And a workshop for P4-7 combines science and history, investigating food from the past and exploring ideas about food for the future.

A New World for Scots: Scots and Emigration will launch in November for P4-7. And in January, Passport to the World will allow P3-7s to explore objects brought back to Aberdeen from around the world. This links with global citizenship, social studies, well-being and can be run as part of an Experience Day.

Creative Curators and Ancient Egypt are also offered as Experience Days, which let schools make a day of it, combining a museum workshop with one on the same theme at the university's Special Collections Centre at the new university library.

Children can explore the university's stunning new library and enjoy workshops on topics such as Medieval Medicine, using rare books to give insights into what medieval medical treatment was really like for the patient.

For more details and bookings, call 01224 274330 or

Photo credit: Simon Price

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