The Phoenix Project
The threat of war
Thomas Sheppard ignored suggestions about protecting the collections from the possibility of damage from air raids. He even advised other curators against the evacuation of their collections. Two weeks after the outbreak of war he told the Hull Daily Mail "even if there is an air raid they [the Hull Museum authorities] have taken the necessary measures for protection from anything except a direct hit".
In the early hours of 24th June 1943 Hull's Municipal Museum on Albion Street took a direct hit by an incendiary bomb. The building collapsed and despite attempts by the fire wardens the building could not be saved. Although some items were salvaged thousands of items collected over more than a hundred years were destroyed.
The site is levelled
Hull suffered extensive damage from the bombing and much of the city needed re-building. In the late 1940's the site was levelled with the collections still buried in the basements, and the site was left as a bomb site until the 1970's when it finally became a car park.
In October 1988 workmen digging a draining ditch across the site discovered ancient pottery and a stone Buddha amongst the ruins and ash from the museum. Realising that they had stumbled across the basement of the museum the work was stopped.
The Phoenix Project
In the days after the discovery of the finds in the drainage trench the initial archaeological investigation recovered more than 2500 items from the side of just one of the trenches. Only a full excavation of the Municipal Museum basements would reveal exactly how much of the collections could be salvaged. With plans in place for development on the site in the near future the Phoenix Project excavation was launched early in 1989.
The area of the buried museum basements was transformed into an archaeological site. Specialist archaeologists, conservators, computer experts and photographers were brought in. A temporary all-weather structure was built to allow work to continue regardless of the weather. The discovery had sparked high levels of public interest and the site was made accessible to the public via walkways, a visitors' centre and even a shop. For many the discovery brought back memories of the war.
Although nobody was really sure what would be found the overwhelming quantity of the items recovered quickly justified the effort and cost involved. Early finds included a further five stone Buddha, a perfect Bellarmine jar, and fragments of Wedgwood's copy of the Portland Vase. Many of the recovered finds were in an excellent condition, with the range of objects recovered reflecting the richness of the collections: from coins through to Egyptian obelisks, jewellery to dinosaur bones, and even a killer whale's jaw.
One of the most surprising stories was the excavation of a 1940's motorbike which became the first motorbike to ever be excavated by archaeologists. The owner, Cyril Nichols, had left his 500cc New Hudson motorbike parked in the boiler room of the Municipal Museum having bought it from the caretaker. Cyril informed the archaeologists at the excavation that they may find his motorcycle, and sure enough they did. The project has meant that thousands of objects have been returned to Hull Museums' collections.