Five surprising objects in UK museums

Published 7 September 2018

Intriguing, shocking or just downright creepy – British museums have some weirdly compelling exhibits if you know where to look.

They exist to safeguard exquisite works of art and priceless artefacts, but museums can’t always choose what history throws at them – they are also keepers of the bizarre and unpalatable.

We’ve picked out five objects from around the country that made our jaws drop or brains boggle. Grab your Student Art Pass, a friend to hold your hand, and expect the unexpected.

Horniman Museum and Gardens, London

‘What is it?’ you ask. And it’s a very good question. When this figure was acquired by the Wellcome Collection in 1919, it was labelled ‘Japanese Monkey-Fish’.

It took a staggering amount of technical wizardry to finally reveal that the jaws and tail once belonged to a fish, and the rest is a mixture of wood, wires, clay, fibres, papier mâché and bird’s feet (probably a chicken’s). No monkey, mercifully.

The most unnerving thing about it is that it’s not the only one. Ningyo, or human-fish, have been an important part of Japanese culture for thousands of years and, when the showman PT Barnum exhibited one in America, they became an instant must-have for 19th-century sideshows in Europe and the US.

Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Devon

Meet Czigane, one of 33 Siberian sledge dogs who took part in Scott of the Antarctic’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole between 1910 and 1912.

In October 1911, Scott wrote in his notes, ‘Another of the best of the dogs, Czigane, was smitten with the unaccountable sickness... If he really has the disease... the end will be swift.’ Happily, Czigane recovered and, unlike Scott, survived the expedition and ended his days in comfort. His collar and photo are also on display at the RAMM.

Ashmolean Museum, Oxfordshire

Strange how an everyday functional object can conjure high drama, political intrigue and attempted mass murder merely by association.

This is said to be the very lantern Guy Fawkes was carrying on the night of 4th November 1605 when he was arrested in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament, his plot to blow up the Protestant King James I thwarted by an anonymous tip-off. Reports say Peter Heyward wrestled the lantern from Fawkes and prevented him from detonating the gunpowder with its flame.

However, Heyward himself was stabbed in the side with a rusty dagger by a friar in 1640 (he was as vehemently anti-Catholic as Fawkes had been anti-Protestant), and the lantern went to his brother.

A proctor of the University of Oxford, Robert Heyward passed it on to the university where it was displayed in the Bodleian Library before being moved to the Ashmolean in 1887.

Museum of Liverpool

This year marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which for the first time gave some women the right to vote in the UK.

Nothing brings home the personal cost of this victory more powerfully than a porcelain funnel, wooden mouth gag and rubber tube on display at the Museum of Liverpool’s exhibition Taking Liberties: Women’s suffrage in Liverpool.

These items were used to force-feed suffragettes on hunger-strike at Walton Gaol in Liverpool. Most famously, Lady Constance Lytton, who had disguised herself as a working woman to avoid special treatment, was held down and force-fed with this apparatus eight times in January 1910.

Surgeons' Hall Museum, Edinburgh

In case you’re wondering, you’re looking at a man’s left armpit. The ‘D’ is a tattoo, marking him permanently as a ‘Deserter’ for trying to leave the army or navy illegally.

Body marking as a punishment was used on civilians as well as soldiers, and until 1717, branding with hot irons was the preferred practice. Too fond of your drink? That’s a ‘D’ for ‘Drunkard’. Homeless and out of work? Take a ‘V’ for ‘Vagabond’. And if fighting's your thing, it’s ‘FM’ forever, ‘Fray Maker’.

Fortunately, body marking as a punishment was banned in all cases in Britain in 1871, but if you’re a fan of voluntary tattoos and aren’t put off by disembodied flaps of human skin, the Surgeons’ Hall Museum also has some fascinating examples of historical body art.

The Student Art Pass offers holders a huge range of exhibitions, galleries, museums and stately homes to visit, either for free or at a reduced price.

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