The museum reflects on 100 years of Manx history

The Isle of Man’s first national museum is celebrating a century since it first opened its doors.

But unlike other Victorian museums, the Manx Museum did not feature stuffed exotic animals and treasures from distant lands.

Instead, it showed the history of Manx and the history of the ordinary people of the Isle of Man.

Katie King, who has curated a new exhibition to mark the centenary, said the approach was “revolutionary”.

The museum houses collections of natural and social history, archaeology, art, clothing and furniture, as well as the library and archives.

Mrs King said that, in contrast to her contemporary Victorian museums, which were attempting to ‘teach the history of the world’, the Manx Museum was set up to ‘educate the people of the island about themselves’.

Rotating wheel

Ordinary objects have been collected alongside more spectacular artifacts

He said: “Other museums were collecting from all over the world and we were just collecting ourselves, which might sound like a bit of a naval observation, but it wasn’t because the world was changing so dramatically.”

Although the collections include “culturally significant objects” such as Captain John Quilliam’s uniform from the Battle of Trafalgar, everyday items such as spinning wheels, butter bowls and things “you might keep by the mantelpiece” have also been retained, he said King.

“They were collecting ordinary things and, above all, stories of ordinary people,” including songs and recordings by native Manx speakers and Manx dialects, he added.

Giant deer skeleton

The discovery of a giant deer skeleton contributed to the impetus for the museum’s creation

But the history of the museum begins before 1922, as the collection of some of the objects in the collections dates back to 1879.

It was then that members of the newly created Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society began the process of salvaging the cultural heritage “in earnest,” King said.

Seven years later, under an act by Tynwald, the Manx Museum and Ancient Monument Trustees were established to formally collect and preserve the history of the Manx people and the island itself, and to devise the concept of a national museum and fund it.

King said that step was taken because it was recognized that Isle of Man “material culture” was “vulnerable” to being placed in foreign museums, sold to private collectors or destroyed.

But a decade later, with no progress, frustrations began to arise among those who could see cultural assets continuing to be taken from the island or treated with contempt.

The discovery of Viking silver during building work in Douglas in 1894, some of which ended up being dumped in a landfill, stoked the frustration of one man in particular, the Victorian scholar Philip Moore Callow Kermode.

Unbeknownst to those who found it, the Ballaquayle Hoard was the largest single collection of Viking silver ever found on the Isle of Man.

PMC Kermode, who led the antique dealers, was shown one of the coins and identified it as potential treasure, prompting a call from the Chief of Police for it to be retrieved and handed over.

The hoard was confirmed as Viking silver by the British Museum in London, but was held by the institution for safekeeping, as the island did not yet have its own museum.

The Ballaquayle Viking Silver Hoard

The Ballaqualye hoard remains the largest single collection found on the Isle of Man

King said PMC Kermode’s anger at that loss and people’s attitudes towards their heritage, coupled with the discovery of the skeleton of a giant stag near St John’s 1897, acted as a “catalyst” for a renewed push for a Manx national museum.

The skeleton was one of only two of its kind to be discovered on the Isle of Man, the first having been claimed by the Duke of Atholl in 1819 and taken to Scotland.

The finds also prompted the island’s Lieutenant Governor John Henniker to intervene, and in 1905 he allowed Castle Rushen to be used as a temporary home for the growing collections.

But it was in 1921 that an agreement was reached between the government and the Henry Bloom Noble Charitable Trustees for the former Noble’s Hospital building in Douglas to be donated as a permanent site.

PMC Kermode was appointed curator and charged with the transformation of the building, which closed as a hospital in 1912.

Contemporary objects in the collections

Objects that tell contemporary stories are still being added to national collections

The Manx Museum opened its doors to the public on 2 November 1922, with the first item in the museum register being a silver coin from the Ballaquayle hoard, part of which had been returned to the island prior to opening.

While the building itself has seen many developments and the way objects are made accessible has changed to keep pace with modern needs over the next 10 decades, the museum’s ethos remains unchanged, King said.

“The way we are trying to convey that the objects belong to the people of the Isle of Man and these are your stories is probably the same message that PMC Kermode meant,” he said.

“It’s the same message. Come and enjoy and celebrate your history. Whether you’ve lived here a week or 100 years, it’s your history.”

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