The Great North Museum

Steve McLean brings us the highlights of the newly renovated Great Northern Museum including an ancient bog body and some My Little Ponies!
27 September 2009

Interview with 

Steve McLean, Senior Manager, Great North Museum


The Great North Museum was open to the public throughout Researchers' Night, offering a rare chance to see the museum after dark.  To find out more about the museum itself, I spoke to the Museum's Senior Manager, Steve McLean.

Great North MuseumSteve -   Well the Great North Museum is a bringing together of a number of museums in Newcastle University.  It's divided into three different sites.  We're in the Great North Museum Hancock at the moment, which is where three collections have come together--the original Hancock Museum, the University's Museum of Antiquities and Shefton Greek Museum in the university.  All now come together under one roof to create this spectacular, new multi-disciplinary museum.  So in the past, the Hancock used to be mainly natural history and some Egyptology, now it's natural history including geology, fossils, crystals, gems.  We've also gotten huge collections of archaeology, Hadrian's wall material, prehistoric collections and of course, our Egyptology and world cultures collections as well.  We've just reopened, about four months ago in May, after a 3-year re-development, which cost just over 26 million pounds.

Ben -   That's a decent chunk of investment.

Steven -   So, yeah, an awful amount of money brought together but also we've created a new store and resource centre where all the stored collections are being held because in this building are only the displayed collections now.  So we've got a new facility where researchers can come and look at the collections or we can take school group parties around, and we've got classrooms there as well.  So the collections themselves, which of course are the backbone of the museum, are now much more accessible for visitors and researchers to use.

Ben -   It must be quite a challenge to tick all of the relevant boxes of natural history and Egyptology, and... As you said, it is very multi-disciplinary.  You can probably tell from the background noise that we're near the natural history part at the moment, with whale song and bird calls and so on but how do you gel all of these fairly disparate parts together?

Steven -   It's a challenging process I have to say.  I mean we obviously, throughout the process we worked with architects and exhibition designers.  We did a lot of research on how we want to interpret the collections and we came with a model for how we would do that.  But you know, like all museums, we're trying to be all things to all people and that does present its challenges.  We're also a University museum but we are run by Tyne & Wear Archives Museums, the largest local authority museum service in the country.  And we've got a huge family audience out there but we've also got to service the students at the university and other universities as well.  So, it's a challenge to try and make that all work and we did deliberately try to set out series of exhibitions and galleries in the museum that complemented each other but also operated in a number of different ways.  So you've got galleries that are a little bit more contemplative, quieter, slightly more academic perhaps and then you've got galleries like this gallery which is the living planet gallery which is a little bit more razzmatazz, very dramatic displays, sound effects and so on, trying to create lots of different environments and fields so that all sorts of visitors can get something from the museum.  That's what we're trying to achieve.  Now, there's always somebody that you can't please but we've had nearly half a million visitors into this museum since we opened and the overwhelming response has been positive.  So we think - we think we've got it right but that doesn't mean to say we won't continue to develop and improve the museum.  We're here to continually do that and to challenge ourselves, and try and move things forward.  So, it's a never-ending process to keep, you know, keep things moving on.

Ben -   One of the parts of the museum which should have quicker turnover than the rest of course is a temporary exhibition space you have to move towards the back of the museum, which currently I've been told the houses a decomposing body.

Steve -   Aha! Yes.  Well, we are lucky enough to have a really fabulous relationship with the British Museum.  In fact, we developed the main Egyptology display here in the museum with a long-term loan from the British Museum so we're able to show part of the National Collection here in Newcastle.  We also have worked with the British Museum through their UK partnership scheme to bring prestigious objects up to the Northeast and we've had some fantastic exhibitions from the BM like the Buried Treasure Exhibition, which contains some of the nation's most famous gold and silver treasures as well as various other items.  And the latest object we've got is Lindow Man, the famous bog body, probably the most famous bog body in the country.  So a very prestigious loan from the BM and we're really pleased that we can house these sorts of objects here because we've built the facilities, working with the British museum and so on, to make sure the facilities are appropriate for their collections.  So we do really now have a very much an international exhibition venue here that allow us to bring in these top quality objects so hopefully the people, particularly in this region, will see the benefit of that.

Ben -   With such a range of things, this might be very difficult question but, what's your personal highlight?

Steven -   It is a difficult question.  I mean in a past life, I was a geologist and mineralogist before I became a manager so I do have a leaning towards palaeontology, that's my own love.  And really the objects that I am most interested in are the famous Newsham beasts, which are large crocodile-like amphibians from the Carboniferous period, which inhabited the swamps of what is now Northumberland around 320 million years ago or so and they were critical in our understanding of the evolution of tetrapods, four-footed animals, and ultimately our own evolution.  So, they play a pivotal role in our understanding of vertebrae evolution and are one of four or five collections of these animals in the world.  We've got some of the type specimens which are the original specimens that were used to describe the species so they're internationally significant and we've been able to put them on display, because normally their hidden away in secure stores.  But because we've have this re-development, we've been able to put a lot of investment into high quality secure cases and therefore, we've been able to put some of these wonderful materials on display.  So people are now seeing the really, really important material in the collections.  So for me, that's one of the wonderful things to see in the museum.  However, I have to say that one of the galleries, our explore gallery, which is all about collecting and collectors and classifications of why we as the species have this desire to collect and classify the world around us.  I asked my own children to find something that they collected.  So there's a drawer in there with five My Little Ponies and they would argue they're the most important things in the collection.  But there's so much material and it means something to different people at different levels.  And everybody's got their own favourite items.  Of course, everybody loves the T. Rex, of course...


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