The Great North Museum – reinventing history

A night at the Museum

The Great North Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne was always called the Hancock Museum and as it still says ‘Hancock Museum’ in stone on the outside, that’s pretty much what everyone still calls it. The museums service rebranded it because it now houses other collections but I’m not sure anyone’s that bothered about that to be honest. Now, I like a good museum but it has to have something to catch my interest and not be too dumbed down. Unfortunately the Hancock has gone a bit that way with ‘interactive’ exhibits which inevitably go wrong. Why do the museums service think that only children (and pretty young children at that) are interested in history and science and that they have to touch a screen or handle a plastic replica of something before they can understand it?

Non interactive exhibit
I chose the day for my visit carefully as I thought the children had gone back to school this week and indeed, most of them had. What I hadn’t bargained for was that people in charge of multiples of small children like to use the museum as an unofficial crèche and it’s hard to concentrate on our artifacts when small people are charging around the galleries and shrieking and whooping as they go. They aren’t interested in the history of Marcus Aurealius, the soldier on Hadrian’s wall or the ancestry of the narwhal, they just want to make as much noise as possible and run around unfettered by adult control.
Watch out the toddlers are coming!
I saw a Grandfather and his grandson sitting down trying to listen to a recorded story about Hercules in the Ancient Greek section, but they were struggling to hear it what with the sound barrier breaking screeching and thunder of footfall from the kids around the galleries. Museums used to be peaceful places where you could consider and think about stuff. Now it’s bite size digestible pieces of information and easy read ‘interpretation’ for the lowest common  denominator. Museums use to be places of learning and I always remember the sense of wonder when I first looked around the Natural History Museum in Dublin for example.



I’d like to hare off but I’m stuffed!


This was a proper old fashioned museum stuffed to the gunnels with stuffed things but you felt you were in a treasure trove of information and fascination. Somewhere where you just might conceivably come across something special, unusual, unique. Also these were real things (if dead obviously) but they weren’t plastic, they weren’t replicas, they weren’t especially interpreted for the intellectually challenged.
A herd mentality – me?
This blog is turning into an anti musem rant and I don’t mean it to be.There are some good things to see at the Great North Museum. Highlights include a life-size T-Rex dinosaur replica skeleton, a large-scale interactive model of Hadrian’s Wall, a life size elephant and a planetarium.



Open wide!


The Roman exhibition was particularly interesting with real tombstones explained. One was for Aricus Ingeus medicus ordinaries (doctor) of the first cohort of Tungrians. He was the youngest medic known from the Roman Empire. An altar built on the bridge Pons Aelius (this where the name Ponteland comes from) was to the river God Neptune displaying  trident and a fish.



Neptune’s Altar


Another altar to the local God of the Britons, Antenociticus, is also found showing that the Romans were integrating local Gods into their worshipping portfolio. There is a very good section on building Hadrian’s wall and arming the wall and living on the wall. Hadrians’ wall was one of the most heavily defended frontiers of the Roman Empire nearly 2,000 years ago and it is a precious part of our local history. Individual stones from the wall were taken and reused throughout Newcastle including the city walls.  George Martin, the author of the fantastically popular Game of thrones series admitted that he was thinking of Hadrian’s Wall when he created his own ‘Wall’ within the seven kingdoms of the novels.




I never forget a face



There is a nice collection of rocks and minerals which is always of interest to me as I am an avid Gems TV aficionado. There was a huge beautiful piece of Whitby jet which connected me back to my recent Whitby sojourn and a piece of the Middlesbrough meteorite which hit the town in 1881. It wasn’t big enough to do any damage though and happily for us all Middlesbrough is still here!



Jet and agate – treasures of the earth


There is the stuffed form of the first Wombat that was brought to Newcastle (Vombatus Ursinius) which was sent by Captain John Hunter the Governor of New South Wales which heralded a new age of discovery in the natural sciences. They must be doing something right though as, by August 2010, the reopened Great North Museum  welcomed its one millionth visitor. And I would still like to be in there at night when everything comes to life..



I love to snack on the under 5’s..



And you can’t please all of the people all of the time
Overheard in the gift shop (always worth a visit in Museums) between a small boy and his mother.


‘Look Sam it’s a T Rex poster!’


‘I don’t want one!’


‘Look it’s a T Rex Mug!’


‘I don’t want one!’


‘And a T Rex mouse mat!!’





Where history hangs out