The history of humanity, from our earliest ancestors to today’s indigenous people spread across the globe, is being retold as a Cambridge University museum reopens following a £1.8m redevelopment.

These objects span time and continents, they take us across oceans and deserts, into jungles and rainforests. They take us from the other side of the road to the far corners of the inhabited earth.

Mark Elliott

The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, home to one of the finest and most important collections of its kind in the country, opens to the public on Friday, May 25, following an 18-month closure.

Described by curator Mark Elliott as an institution containing ‘everything, everywhere, ever’, the museum has undergone a radical transformation to bring its treasures to life as never before.

For the first time in more than a century, the museum now also has a front door, facing out on to Downing Street, rather than its former departmental entrance, hidden out of sight at the back of the building.

Each of the thousands of objects chosen for display is literally one in a million; although an exact number isn’t known, the museum’s vast collection of artefacts numbers around the million mark.

Elliott said: “Every one of the objects tells not just one story, but many stories. Between them, they span time and continents, they take us across oceans and deserts, into jungles and rainforests, they take us from the other side of the road to the far corners of the inhabited earth. They allow us to look back into the past and take that past with us into the future.

“Because we have so many, but can show only a few, each one has been specifically chosen for the stories they tell, the knowledge they contain and the secrets they reveal. Everything in here was made by somebody, somewhere, at some time across the span of human history.

“This is the world in Cambridge. From Friday, anyone will be able to come and see all our incredible and beautiful objects for free. We can’t wait to reopen and show the public how the museum has been transformed."

The museum’s oldest object is a stone chopping tool that dates back to the hominid ancestors of modern man 1.8m years ago. By contrast, its newest is a Perspex  sculpture by Maori artist George Nuku that was finished earlier this month (May).

The rarest object in the collection is a Sufi Muslim snakes and ladders board, one of only four known examples and the only one made of wood (the others are made of parchment or paper).

Meanwhile, the object that travelled furthest is a Maori trumpet, made out of Triton shell. It was collected by Captain James Cook in 1773 in New Zealand and crossed 11,433 miles to reach its current home The museum has a world-leading collection of Cook artefacts, including the very first Aboriginal items collected by Europeans. They were gathered by Captain Cook and his crew on their first day upon Australian soil, at Botany Bay.

Conversely, the exhibit found closest to the museum, a sign language plate from the early 20th Century was found a mere 160metres away at a dig that took place in 2006-7 before the building of the city’s new John Lewis store.

Coming back to display after decades in the museum’s stores is the famous ‘Arbury Coffin’. Immortalised by Sylvia Plath in her poem All the Dead Dears, written while she was a student at Cambridge, the coffin contains the body of a middle-aged woman from Roman Britain. Entombed in lead and stone, the coffin was found in the Arbury area of Cambridge during the development of housing in the 1950s.

The remains of a mouse and shrew were also found in the coffin. One or both of them had nibbled at the woman’s leg.

Added Elliott: “These collections tell us about human past and present, but they’re also sources of inspiration for teachers, artists, poets and performers. There’s an awful lot people can get from these objects. Museums are places where things happen, they’re not just dusty places where the objects go to die.”

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