Museum eye

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2010), Reviews, Volume 18

Manx Museum/Thie Tashtee Vannin
Kingswood Grove, Douglas, Isle of Man
www.storyofmann.com, enquiries@mnh.gov.im, +44 (0)1624 648000
Mon.–Sat. 10am–5pm
by Tony Canavan

 

On entering, the visitor is met by a large wooden disc featuring the three-legged symbol of the island. It once belonged to one of the many steamers that plied their trade on the Irish Sea out of Douglas.

On entering, the visitor is met by a large wooden disc featuring the three-legged symbol of the island. It once belonged to one of the many steamers that plied their trade on the Irish Sea out of Douglas.

Even the first-time Irish visitor to the Isle of Man will find it a familiar place. The landscape looks a lot like parts of Ireland, as do the farmhouses, some of which are thatched. The towns and villages dotted across the island look familiar too. The main town, Douglas, is a Victorian seaside resort resembling Bray, Co. Wicklow, or Portrush, Co. Antrim. Even the place-names are very similar, with ‘balla’ for our ‘bally’, while names like Kilkenny or Curraghs look very Irish indeed. The similarities continue with the bilingual signs in English and Manx, as the latter is a branch of Gaelic very close to the Irish of Ulster. As it says in the national museum, ‘Our Manx culture, in particular our national language, owes much to [our] Celtic ancestry’.
The recently refurbished Manx Museum, the national museum of the island, is situated on a hill overlooking Douglas. On entering you are met by a large wooden disc featuring the three-legged symbol of the island that once belonged to one of the many steamers that plied their trade on the Irish Sea out of Douglas. I have to admit to a sense of foreboding on seeing that the first exhibit was a collection of old motorbikes and a video showing TT races from the 1920s and 1930s. I was afraid that the story of Man would be entirely taken up with its famous motorbike race.

 

 

I need not have worried. The people and government of Man are very proud of their history and heritage. The museum proper begins with galleries devoted to the national art collection, which shows that being an island does not necessarily mean being insular. Manx artists painted places as far afield as Venice, while other artists came to paint on the island—not all voluntarily, as some of the best paintings are by Germans interned during the world wars.

 

 

The museum proper begins with galleries devoted to the national art collection.

The museum proper begins with galleries devoted to the national art collection.

Beyond the art collection, another room has antique maps featuring the island either alone or as part of the British Isles. In the middle of this room is a large three-dimensional model of Man, showing all the topographical features. It also shows the TT course, however, and a large screen and set of controls enable you to try your hand at riding a motorbike around the famous circuit. I won’t mention my own disastrous effort!

 

 

We go into the island in the next gallery, as we look at its geology and see examples of the different stones, like slate, sandstone and limestone, that constitute its land mass. This leads onto a section on the first settlers, who arrived in the Mesolithic period. There are very good displays in the cabinets of stone tools, weapons and clay pots from this era. Particularly eye-catching are a long dugout canoe and the skeleton of an Irish elk.

 

 

The next gallery looks at the island’s geology and we see examples of the different stones, like slate, sandstone and limestone, that constitute its land mass.

The next gallery looks at the island’s geology and we see examples of the different stones, like slate, sandstone and limestone, that constitute its land mass.

The first historical people on Man were the Celts, and a large area is devoted to them and their culture. Impressive are the stone carvings, some featuring ogham from later Irish settlers, which represent the many standing stones and crosses that can be found around Man. There are photographs, artistic representations and models about Celtic society, farming and the church, Christianity having been introduced from Wales, it is believed.
An interesting feature of this and the previous gallery is that much of the archaeological work on the island was pioneered by a German scholar, who found many of the objects displayed and was responsible for some of the models. Dr Gerhard Bersu was sent for detention to the island during the Second World War and spent his years on Man leading archaeological excavations into the island’s historical sites, an echo of the role of Adolf Mahr in Ireland. In both world wars, the British sent ‘enemy aliens’ to be interned on Man. As a later exhibit shows, part of the Douglas seafront was fenced off and the Germans and Italians were confined to living in the boarding-houses along the promenade. While conditions could be harsh, their time on the Isle of Man was not all bad.
The gallery on the Celts and early Christians leads onto a large, airy gallery devoted to the Vikings. The Manx people are equally proud of their Viking blood, and both place-names and language contain Viking words. As elsewhere in the museum, there are very good video and interactive displays in this exhibition that paints a picture of the Vikings at war, in trade and under sail. There are coin hoards and other treasures on display alongside tools, household implements and models of longships and burials.

 

 

The Manx people are proud of their Viking blood, and both place-names and language contain Viking words.

The Manx people are proud of their Viking blood, and both place-names and language contain Viking words.

Man was part of the Viking world for centuries and ruled by the king of Norway for much of that time. The Viking gallery ends with the gravestone of Magnus, last Viking king of the Manx, who died in 1265. Central to the Viking legacy is the Manx parliament and tradition of democracy. A short video gives a history of the Tynwald, the world’s oldest continual parliament, how it survived different rulers through the centuries and still governs the island today. The Isle of Man came under British control through the 1765 Act of Revestment, which is on display here, but although the British monarch is ipso facto Lord of Man, the island was never incorporated into the United Kingdom and is still a self-governing entity.
Successive galleries take us through the social, commercial and political history of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, again using a good mix of actual objects and models and videos. From an Irish perspective some things will be familiar, such as turf-cutting and emigration. It is worth looking at the exhibit on mining, as this was important to the island’s economy until the 1920s, and when the ore ran out many Manxmen emigrated to South Africa, where they pioneered diamond- and gold-mining.

 

 

The interior of a reconstructed barn.(All images: Manx Museum)

The interior of a reconstructed barn.
(All images: Manx Museum)

The island developed as a holiday resort in the mid-nineteenth century and there is a lively gallery devoted to tourism, taking in the famous Manx railways, the growth of Douglas promenade, the boarding-houses and so on. After this detailed, informative and entertaining journey through over three millennia of history, you’ll be glad to sit down and have a cuppa in the very nice cafe! HI

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