The Main Hall of the Hunterian Museum
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP

The Hunterian Museum: a student’s guided tour

By Anne Van Hoose

MuSE tour guide Anne van Hoose shares her favourite artefacts on display at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum

I’ve been a MuSE tour guide for two years at the Hunterian Museum on campus. MuSE tours, which are given throughout the week and sometimes on weekends, take place in the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery. I specialise in artefacts throughout the Museum, so come with me while I take you through my favourite artefacts and our current exhibition!

The Hunterian Museum was Scotland’s first public museum, established in 1807. The museum consists mainly of items collected by William Hunter, which I like to compare to a cabinet of curiosities (the Hunterian really is like a massive cabinet of curiosity). These “cabinets” were personal collections that wealthy people kept in their homes, often dedicating a whole room to it, filled with items they had bought or collected during an expedition.

However, cabinets of curiosities have a bit of an uncomfortable history behind them, which the current exhibition Curating Discomfort at The Hunterian is currently addressing. Many artefacts from other cultures that you encounter at your nearby museum could have been stolen and not bought, could have contributed to colonisation, and could represent the exploitation of many. In the case of the opium pipe, displayed in Curating Discomfort, it represents the exploitation of an entire country and the sugar-coating of two wars that might have been left out of your history books.

The China Wars, Tea Wars, or, more appropriately named The First and Second Opium Wars, were a series of battles between the British and the Chinese over the trade of luxury goods (mainly being tea, silk, and porcelain). China had opened itself up to trade with the British to export these luxury goods in exchange for silver. The demand for these luxury goods was so high that the British found themselves running low on silver to trade with, and resorted to selling opium in China paid for by the Chinese people in silver. By the height of the opium trade, this exchange of opium for silver paid almost entirely for the purchasing of luxury goods. After China attempted to engage in diplomatic relations to stop the trade of opium, the British attacked, starting a series of battles – The Opium Wars – of which China lost both, having to pay war reparations and legalise the sale and consumption of opium.

Opium was smoked using pipes which were stored in boxes that were sometimes beautiful and ornate, like the pipe box found at the Hunterian Museum. It is made of ivory, and while it is beautiful and is sculpted to show iconography specific to China, it actually represents the oppression and exploitation of the very culture it depicts.

Opium pipe and box © The Hunterian

There are two other artefacts, which are both outside of the main exhibition, that are my favourites: the Cleopatra coin and Lady Shepenhor, the mummy. The Cleopatra coin is one of the clearest depictions we have of Cleopatra on a coin, but it may not have been what she actually looked like. Her appearance may have been altered to fit beauty standards at the time, or to make her look more like her father, arguably a more loved leader than her. Cleopatra came about the throne in an unconventional way, so making her look like her father would have asserted that she was fit to rule.

Cleopatra coin © The Hunterian

Lady Shepenhor, who is best seen in person, is the Hunterian’s resident mummy. If you visit her in person (you absolutely should), crouch down to see her wrapped up inside of her intricate coffin. She has been kept wrapped up to preserve the mummy, though the museum did want to unwrap her. When Lady Shepenhor arrived, the museum was unsure if it was in fact her inside the coffin – or if she had been swapped out for someone or something else. The mummy was X-rayed in the 70s to make sure she was human, and she is! Her coffin is very detailed and well preserved, and, in hieroglyphics, describes her, her family, and protection for the afterlife.

Lady Shepenhor’s coffin © The Hunterian

Come over to the Hunterian Museum in the Main Building and the Art Gallery right next to the library to check out everything else the Hunterian has to offer, and join in on a free, student-led MuSE tour while you’re at it!

You can find information about the mentioned artefacts on the Hunterian Collections website or in person at the Hunterian Museum. Information about Curating Discomfort can be found online at The Hunterian website or in person in the Hunterian Museum.


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