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Founded in 1950, and the only one of its kind in the UK, Durham University's Oriental Museum is largely unknown despite being a mere twenty-minute walk from the world renowned Durham Cathedral. Situated on the grounds of Van Mildert College, the museum's exhibits come from a variety of 19th and 20th century sources and cover the civilisations of Asia, the Near East and Islamic North Africa. OPENING TIMES AND ADMISSION Monday – Friday 10am – 5pm Weekends 12 – 5pm Bank Holidays 10am – 5pm £1.50 adults 75p concessions £3.50 family ticket Telephone: (0191) 3747911 Website: www.dur.ac.uk/orientalmuseum GETTING THERE Bus number 6 runs from Durham Station to Bishop Auckland, running along South Road past the museum. From Elvet Bridge, follow the signposts along New Elvet. Take the right fork into Church Street and continue past St Oswald’s Church. Cross at the traffic lights and continue straight along South Road. The museum is on the right. From Durham Cathedral, follow the street running to the right of the Heritage Centre directly behind the cathedral and cross the Kingsgate Bridge. Turn right and follow the directions as from Elvet Bridge. Car parking is available adjacent to the museum. THE ORIENTAL MUSEUM A small gift shop and a ticket desk are located at the entrance. A balcony runs to the right of the ticket desk, overlooking three terraces below. Three small rooms open off the balcony and the Marvels of China exhibit takes up the space opposite the main entrance. Turn right at the entrance and a room straight ahead houses the exhibits on the Ancient Egyptians, largely purchased in 1950 from the collection of the sixth Duke of Northumberland, who had travelled extensively in Egypt between 1827 and 1829. A mummy lies to the right of the door, its deformed arm explained in helpful text – aimed
at parties of schoolchildren judging by the questions and discussion points – that accompanies all of the major exhibits. There is a large collection of shabtis, model figures placed in burial chambers and inscribed with magic text in order that they might continue to serve their master in the afterlife, and amulets used to ward off evil spirits. An obelisk from Oswan, presented to the Duke by the ruler of Egypt and whose counterpart can be found in Cairo Museum, towers over tomstone stelai carved in relief with soldiers and servants which once served as gravestones. Weapons, basketwork, an ivory dice and castanets are housed on the far wall next to drills, saws and chisels once used to construct wooden objects like the large sycamore box on display. In the corner, stone headrests, cosmetics, jewellery, figurines and leather sandals fill display cases beside another limestone obelisk, a statue of a man holding a stele (circa 1295 BC), granite statues and basalt sphinxes. Pride of place, however, is the 5-inch high boxwood sculpture of a servant girl carrying a pot, the detail of which is nothing less than remarkable. The second room houses an exhibit on The Story of Writing starting with Chinese seals made of bamboo, soapstone, serpentine and igneous rock. South East Asian scripts on lacquered silk and wooden boards are displayed alongside Burmese manuscript, Thai seals shaped like Buddhist stupa, an 18th century bronze vase with Arabic text and a Chinese porcelain dish covered in sanskrit text. Palm-leaf folios written in Tamil script, sanskrit astrological charts and Tibetan wooden bookcovers and pencases lead to Egyptian funerary texts on papyrus roll, Arabic tiles, Persian manuscript and tablets from Mesopotamia. Look out also for the 18th century Qur'an written on octagonal slips of 2 x 2 inch paper. The tiny manuscript was fitted into the base of a warrior’s weapon and carried into battle. Out on to the balcony, th
e Marvels of China exhibit was opened in 2000 with cash from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and is devided into Contemporary Society and Ancient Civilisation, Imperial Decorative Arts, The Emperor and his Court and Exploring the Silk Route. There is a huge collection of ceramics and pottery ranging from Tang Dynasty earthenware models of camels to modern Chinese kitchenware. Ornate porcelain teapots are complemented by rows of Buddha figures and bronze mirrors, Han Dynasty pig sty models and a Tang Dynasty moulded figure of a polo player on a galloping horse. Silk audeience robes hang next to a Qing Dynasty copper alloy vase beautifully decorated with plum blossom and chrysanthemums, while silk riverscape paintings overlook jade seals and paperweights, 19th century fans and decorative boxes and ornaments. Ivory and jade opium pipes stand alongside mother of pearl ink pots, rhioceros horn cups and crystal sculptures. The most famous exhibit is undoubtedly the wood and ivory bed, almost like a room at over two metres across and three metres high, which boasts three walls, a floor, a ceiling and a chair between the entrance and the bed itself. The whole structure is joined without using nails or screws meaning it can be dismantled easily, and the mother of pearl decoration is staggering. The terraces below are reached by lift or a series of small staircases. On the highest level, The Islamic World is full of wonderful Persian jugs and bowls dating back to the 13th century, ceramic tiles, window grills, jade wine cups, brass candle holders, Indian paintings and a wonderful 12th century Sphinx from Syria. Alongside, Buddhism and Hinduism is even more impressive, with Hindu scriptures, a bronze temple lamp, 17th century bronze Tibetan deity figures and 18th century Burmese panels depicting scenes from teh Ramayana, an epic sanskrit poem. A Burmese marble seated Buddha gazes serenely over a huge wooden book chest decorated with scenes from the historical Bud
dha's life, while a Chinese cast bronze Medidation Hall Bell and a lion shaped Nepalese incense burner are housed next to artefacts from Tibet, Japan, Korea and Burma. Downstairs, Japanese Culture encompasses screens, an 18th century porcelain temple jar, a 14th century cast bronze head of the Buddha, ivory figures, wood-block prints, brass lanterns, dolls, kimonos, 19th century Edo period swords, ivory chopsticks and an elaborate lacquer on wood display cabinet inlaid with mother of pearl and ivory. The South East Asia section has modern wood carvings from Bali, 19th century Burmese lacquerware, Indonesian puppets, Thai ceramic teapots and drums and gongs from Java arranged in a set with bamboo flutes and metal key instruments. The lowest terrace is given over to an amazing collection of Chinese porcelain. Ming Dynasty blue-and-white pottery blends into Fujian province dishes of turquoise, balck and red enamels. A 15th century green celadon hexagonal pavilion is surrounded with earthenware tomb figures, the carved sandstone head of a Bodhisattva and a number of intricate warrior figures. Terracotta tomb figures stand snarling with clenched fists in order to ward off evil sprits and 8th century terracotta animal figures circle a 10th century iron horse which rises 38cm from the display case floor. Jade beads and sword fittings, Neolithic jars, Tibetan Buddhist horns and a bamboo boat with fishing nets on top and figures on both sides round out the collection alongside some 17th century European export wares. In the left hand corner there is also a small display of Korean Goryeo Dynasty green celadon – breathtaking. OVERALL I spent an hour and a half in the museum and had the place to myself, which is a shame as the artefacts are both extremely impressive and unique, in Britain at least. There’s more to Durham than just the Cathedral and Castle.......