On a recent visit to Southport a traditional British seaside holiday was given a brief respite as I indulged in one of my other passions – a love for Egyptology – at the Atkinson Museum.
The Atkinson has to be one of Southport’s hidden gems, with many relative locals unaware of the treasures it has on display inside, and I have to admit to being one of those myself! I was aware of the Atkinson in a vague sense of course, but until recently had no idea of exactly what a tourism and cultural powerhouse Southport had hidden away!
The Atkinson is Southport’s cultural mecca, showcasing music, theatre, film, art, literature and history, and has a proud Victorian heritage dating back to 1923 when it integrated the earlier 19th Century Atkinson Art Gallery and Library and the neighbouring Manchester and Liverpool District Bank.
Located right in the centre of town, just off the tree lined and canopied Lord Street, the Neoclassical and Renaissance architecture evokes the Victorian atmosphere that Southport is famous for, and the museum and galleries not only have an impressive selection of temporary exhibits and installations, but a range of permanent collections that any museum or art gallery should be proud of!
But beyond all of that, the highlight for me personally had to be the showcasing of the Ancient Egyptian collection of Anne Goodison, so once I heard about it, tearing myself away from the beach and the seaside arcades for a visit here was an absolute must.
A Journey Back In Time.
Anyone who knows me, or any regular reader, knows that I am passionate about ancient history and Egyptology in particular. Hence my many trips and expeditions through the land of the Pharaohs over the years, and when I learned that the Atkinson had an Egyptology exhibition I genuinely could not wait to see it for myself.
Honestly, If I had known it was here I would have made my way here much sooner!
The collection isn’t overly large by most standards, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in sheer quality and a fascinating provenance, with small artefacts from a private collection giving a glimpse into a different time and culture .
Designed to be a journey through daily life in ancient Egypt, the collection showcases an infinitely more intimate connection to the past with four separate themes that are there to help you understand how the ancient Egyptians lived their daily lives in harmony with the earth and the stars around them.
The first theme showcases the cornerstone of all ancient Egyptian society, ritual. Religion was not an esoteric concept to the Egyptians, it was a very real part of everyday life, with small daily rituals designed to connect them to their environment and the pantheon of deities that affected the world around them. Shabti dolls on display were carved in life to accompany people in the afterlife, with the wealthiest in society able to afford whole armies of servants and soldiers to serve them in their new life, and the ritual of mummification required a number of the canopic jars on display to hold the organs they would need to be reborn in the next life.
To the Egyptians, death was merely the next step on a long journey and everything they did in this life, every ritual they performed, every game they played, even the way they prepared their food and the diet they ate affected how they lived.
Moving slowly around the relatively small room, the second section on daily life showcases a number of daily artefacts and informational displays that give a brief glimpse into these lives. The way the ancient Egyptians lived affected the rituals they performed and those rituals moulded and shaped the ancient Egyptian culture itself.
The third section shows the importance the ancient Egyptians placed on beauty, with an impressive collection of jewellery and daily ablution implements, the artefacts not only showcase the importance the Egyptians themselves placed on beauty, but the importance that the collector, Anne Goodison placed on it too. The fact she devoted so much space to these small artefacts showed the personal connection she had with them. Appearance denoted your status in society in Ancient Egypt, much as it does now in many ways, and the impressive array of objects, almost insignificant and easily overlooked by a casual observer, gives a deep insight into a long lost civilisation over half a world away.
It is the final section that is perhaps the most significant to our understanding of the ancient Egyptian way of life though, and one that the collections curator Anne Goodison devoted a large part of her life’s work to, communication. A series of steles and objects such as a scribal writing set showed the importance of writing in ancient Egypt, a skill that was often the sole preserve of the elite of society yet has given us our clearest glimpse into the past yet, and the Atkinson’s displays do a great job in highlighting the importance of that process.
But this focus on an educational journey through a private collection doesn’t mean the Atkinson doesn’t have an array of impressive artefacts either. An intricately and well preserved sarcophagi lid and the mummy of Nes Amun are the highlight of the collection and the interactive displays and regular educational video supplement this small but impressive collection perfectly.
A Victorian Pastime.
A collection as impressive as this is almost expected in a larger and more established museum, but is a genuinely impressive surprise on a seaside break in Southport, until you realise Southport’s Victorian heritage, and the curators relative local status from neighbouring Liverpool, makes this a perfect home for it.
This collection was curated by Anne Goodison, wife of the local Liverpool industrialist George Goodison, who gave his name to the famous football ground of Everton. Anne Goodison was a fascinating woman, very much a product of her time and one who would have given Indiana Jones himself a run for his money. As a relatively wealthy Victorian lady, she used her influence to foster a passion for Egyptology and carved out an impressive reputation of her own as a collector and student of archaeology.
Egyptomania was a very real thing in Victorian England, with Egypt a part of the British Empire at the turn of the century there was a national obsession with all things Egyptian. Numerous expeditions were funded throughout the century that led to the rediscovery of large swathes of Egypt’s past and grew the academic disciplines of archaeology and Egyptology into what they are today, and one of the driving forces of this were the well to do women of the time.
Wealthy, highly educated women still had a long way to go in winning equal rights in the workplace and society at the time, but had a lot of time and energy to devote to what were then seen as respectable pursuits that both displayed and cemented their elevated status in society, including academic study, travelling and fund raising for archaeological expeditions.
It was Amelia Edwards for example who helped found the Egypt Exploration fund, which is still going strong today as the Egypt Exploration Society, Janet Gourlay and Margaret Benson who excavated the Mut Complex in Karnak and Kate Griffith who helped develop the Department of Egyptology at University College London.
As part of this wave of pioneering Victorian ladies, Anne Goodison was a self taught student of Egyptology and Hieroglyphics in particular, and an avid collector of antiquities. At a time when Egyptology was still in its infancy, she and others like her helped to develop the scientific method of excavation and proper respect for antiquities. There is a lot to be said about the negative colonial practice of selling futures to fund these excavations, which meant a lot of antiquities ended up in museums and private collections like this, but it did help stop the free for all treasure hunts, theft and destruction of ancient sites, without which many of these treasures, and the knowledge that came with them, would have been lost forever.
Ancient Egypt In Southport.
Anne Goodison’s collection of antiquities is small and very personal to her, but it is a unique glimpse not only into the past of ancient Egypt but into the Victorian past of Southport and Merseyside too. Ever since the Atkinson rescued the collection from the now closed Bootle Museum where it was stored after Anne’s husband sold it after her death, and Heritage Lottery Funding allowed it to finally be displayed as a permanent collection in 2014, Southport has a museum that supplements the larger Egyptology collections in Liverpool and Manchester perfectly, and gives a unique glimpse into the past that cannot and should not be missed on any trip to this Victorian seaside town.
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