Curator’s Diary, September 2017: CIPEG Meeting in Chicago

Last week I attended the annual meeting of CIPEG (International Committee for Egyptology, ICOM) at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago thanks to a travel grant provided by the Art Fund. The four-day meeting was focused on ‘The Role of Curators in Museum Research and Exhibits: Tradition, Change, and Looking to the Future’ and was a valuable opportunity to share insights into the presentation of ancient Egyptian and Sudanese material in museum contexts worldwide. The Oriental Institute was the perfect setting, with an impressive Egyptological collection derived from many of the same sites as material now in Manchester. The programme also included visits to the Egyptian Consulate and Chicago’s vast Field Museum.

Tut-Chicago

A restored colossus of Tutankhamun (reused by Aye & Horemheb) overlooks the galleries at the Oriental Institute

I gave a paper about our work here using new ways of engaging visitors during our award-winning ‘Animal Mummies Revealed’ exhibition tour, emphasising the importance of ‘in-person’ research and presentation (such as our ‘Mummy Re-Rolling’ events) and the (often underestimated) role of the curator as a performer and animator. I also spoke about the experience of working with Syrian artist Zahed Taj-Eddin on his installation ‘Shabtis: Suspended Truth’. Zahed’s work juxtaposes ancient material culture with modern political commentary to powerful effect. Using such contemporary art as a way to approach the contentious subject of modern migration in Europe seemed to strike a particular chord with colleagues in other institutions that did not normally address such issues.

Nefermaat

Partly restored paste-inlay relief of Prince Nefermaat in the OI; another section of this unusually decorated chapel is in Manchester

Other papers included reports on upcoming exhibitions and ongoing research projects; a particularly promising update concerned a proposed archival photography installation at the site magazine in Tanis in the north eastern Delta, with the aim of opening dialogue with local people. A very useful panel session, with speakers drawn from a variety of curatorial backgrounds, focussed on the main themes of the conference. Despite the obvious diversity of modern curatorial roles – which seemed to have more to do with the size of an institution than anything else – participants were united by a common enthusiasm to share Egyptology with others. The vexed question of the display of human remains – focusing on research in Leiden, where the Rijksmuseum no longer shows unwrapped mummies – received some lively debate. Perhaps of interest to students wishing to pursue a career in museum Egyptology, there was no consensus on the necessity of museological training for curators, with some advocating on-the-job training for Egyptologists while others favoured specific study of museological methods to enable (for example) effective drafting of interpretation text.

CIPEG group 1

Participants of CIPEG 2017

CIPEG is a unique forum for discussion, with shared challenges across national borders and sizes of institutions. In the context of the threat to sites in Egypt to supply the black market in antiquities, the General Assembly of CIPEG’s endorsement of the recent ‘Florence Declaration’ on cultural heritage seemed particularly important.  Increasingly, curators are challenging the colonial context of many collections (especially through the use of archival material) and even questioning the modern construction of a monolithic ‘Ancient Egypt’ itself. It remains to be seen to what extent new thinking and results in academic Egyptology can filter through to interpretation that museum visitors will actually engage with.

The next meeting of CIPEG will, for the first time in the UK, be held at Swansea’s Egypt Centre in September 2018.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Curator's Diary, Uncategorized

Representation and Reality in ‘The Mummy’ (1999)

Following on from my own thoughts on the most recent installment in the ‘Mummy’ genre, I’m pleased to welcome a guest blog from armchair Egyptologist and film fanatic Matt Szafran – hopefully the first in a series!

 

It’s easy to be annoyed when a subject you’re knowledgeable in is depicted inaccurately on screen. I know medical workers who get annoyed when a procedure is performed in a fatally incorrect manner, IT people who balk at the incessant use of the word ‘firewall’ and locksmiths who laugh at the way a highly trained secret agent uses lock picks the wrong way round. It sounds obvious but sometimes we forget the fact that films are simply entertainment for the masses and in our haste to condemn the inaccuracies we often overlook the more accurate details.

To that end let us consider the Stephen Sommers directed The Mummy (1999) film, and observe what the filmmakers actually got right instead of debunking its inaccuracies. The film certainly has some egregious historical inaccuracies, however the team at Industrial Light and Magic, with the help of Egyptologist Dr Stuart Tyson Smith, included some surprisingly accurate details even though they know that the proverbial man on the street wouldn’t know a cartouche from a cartonnage. For the sake of brevity I’m going to cherry-pick a few examples of these, rather than consider every point in the film.

The end of the first act sees Arnold Vosloo’s Imhotep character being cursed with the ‘Hom Dai’ and being mummified alive alongside his priests. Due to ancient Egyptian decorum and secrecy we don’t know exactly how mummification was actually performed, however through mummy research and experimental archaeology we do have a good idea of the majority of the processes involved. In the film we see what appears to be excerebration and wrapping being performed on Imhotep’s priests, with some of the embalmers are wearing jackal headed masks. There are depictions in ancient Egyptian visual culture of masks being used whilst performing rituals like the ‘opening of the mouth’ ceremony, and there are also extant examples such as the Late Period clay mask in the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim or the Late Period cartonnage mask in The Royal Pump Room Museum in Harrogate. The wrappings applied to Imhotep look to be very accurate, with a herringbone weave pattern on the torso and strips of outer wrapping encircling the body and legs in the traditional figure-eight style. It’s not shown in this scene but when Imhotep’s coffin is later discovered it’s said that ‘the sacred spells have been chiselled off’ and that the occupant was ‘condemned not only in this life but in the next’. The spells removed from Imhotep’s coffin are likely to reference the Book of the Dead, which acts as a guide for the challenges faced in the afterlife and was painted on the inside and out of coffins, without which the deceased may find themselves lost in the underworld of Duat.

ImhotepWrapped

We’re introduced to Rachel Weisz’s Evelyn ‘Evy’ Carnahan character in the library of the ‘Cairo Museum of Antiquities’, which has shelves stacked with case bound books and binders. Those binders are actually imitation field reports by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES), with each binder being for different topics such as ‘art’ or ‘tools’. Interestingly the EES logo used is actually the original logo of the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF) with the word ‘fund’ changed to ‘society’. As the film is primarily set in 1926 having an EEF logo would anachronistic, as the EEF became the EES in 1919. This is an excellent example of a tiny accurate detail that you ultimately can’t even see on screen, but the art department spent time creating it anyway. There is an interesting parallel here with the way much the ancient Egyptian visual culture would never be seen by human eyes other than its creator, and was purely for the consumption of the gods rather than man.

LibraryBinder

When the protagonists leave Giza aboard a riverboat heading for Hamunaptra, we see Evy reading a book during the journey. This is actually The Dwellers on The Nile by E. A. Wallis Budge published in 1885. Even though his works are not well regarded today, it would be wholly appropriate for Egyptology scholars of the 1920s to be reading Budge. The art department could have used any book but chose to use something historically accurate which the character would likely have been reading, even though only a tiny handful of people would ever realise the significance.

DwellersOnTheNile

There is exceptional symbolism when we see the camera pan down a carved obelisk depicting Seth, the god of chaos and disorder, and on to Imhotep leading a mob of boil ridden ‘slaves’. As Campbell mentioned in his review of The Mummy (2017) (see post below); even though Seth is the preeminent choice for an ‘evil’ god he’s surprisingly rarely depicted on screen. Given how much research has gone into the other aspects of the film this feels a deliberate and appropriate backdrop to the antagonist as he’s about to commit another act of violence.

Seth

There are plenty more examples of accurate and otherwise interesting Egyptological details in both The Mummy (1999) and also in its sequel The Mummy Returns (2001). It can be enjoyable to watch the films and only look at the background, endeavouring to work out what references were used. Some of the origins of those props and sets, especially the ones used for hieroglyphic texts, can be equally surprising and obscure!

-Matt Szafran

Leave a comment

Filed under Egyptian mummies

A review of ‘The Mummy’: sex, death and inaccuracy

Mummy movies play an undeniably powerful role in feeding (pre)conceptions about ancient Egypt among the general public, particularly for museum-goers. In my experience of working with school groups in the last ten years, a good deal of time was spent correcting misinformation gleaned from the swashbuckling Brendan Frasier/Rachel Weiss 1999 ‘Mummy’ franchise. To ignore the most recent re-boot, starring Tom Cruise and on general realise from today, would be churlish. Some Egyptologists will simply laugh it off while others will grumble about inaccuracies, perhaps assuming that Egyptology is in some way an exact science or that museums don’t construct their own ‘facts’ about the Egyptians all the time.

The-Mummy-2017-1-1

Leaving aside the issue of the quality of the film (which I actually found quite enjoyable), ‘The Mummy’ tells us some interesting things about museums, archaeological research and the ancient Egyptians. The film’s opening exposition connects with very current issues – U.S. intervention in the Middle East and the iconoclastic tendencies of Daesh – and is jarringly candid about the Black Market in the antiquities trade. In this 2017 reboot, it’s the looters and traffickers (rather than the archaeologists) that get their comeuppance by unleashing an ancient evil. There is, of course, a vague but consistent sense of archaeological enquiry; as always, this is never research for the sake of it – this film perpetuates the myth of archaeologists (and researchers in general) as on the hunt for particular things, trying to fathom a specific ancient mystery. The pernicious subtext has always seemed clear to me: don’t trust anyone with a doctorate who isn’t a medic, because research that isn’t hard science is somehow frivolous and indulgent.

Ancient Egypt appears, as usual, much more boring than it actually was: a bland, overly-sandy wilderness as backdrop to some predictable palace-based intrigues. Although, unsurprisingly, no Egyptologists are credited (or would own up to being) among the ‘researchers’, there’s some passable vocalised Late Egyptian among the confused dialogue. One might charitably assume that the name of Princess ‘Ahmanet’ is a reference to Amunet, the female counterpart of the god Amun, representing ‘hiddenness’ – but this may simply be a coincidence. Researchers also seem to have picked up on the idea of (gilded) finger- and toe-stalls from genuine mummies (such as Tutankhamun and Third Intermediate Period royals from Tanis) to add an unusual detail to ‘other’ even further the ancient princess. The appearance of pseudo-hieratic tattoos indicate her possession by the evil forces of Seth, who is actually very rarely name-checked in mummy films as a bringer of chaos.

One intriguing twist in Ahmanet’s backstory is her stated role as the ambitious and capable heir of her father, resentful of being displaced in the succession by the arrival of a baby half-brother. It is easy to see this as a nod to the historical person of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut (c. 1473-58 BCE); with ‘Ahmanet’ even suffering the same eventual fate, of being stricken from the historical record. More might have been made of this, but the opportunity was lost.

The Mummy-AE

Regarding the ‘horror’ of the film, perhaps most interesting is the fundamental premise of the eponymous Mummy as a sexual being. Ahmanet is a kohl-eyed seductress, who uses men to advance her position. In this, the story returns to early fictional treatments of the Egyptian mummy not as a shuffling (male) servant/lover of a princess, in 20th Century films, but as a beautiful princess herself ‘stripped’ of her bandages and – restored to life – able to tempt mortal men. This in some way misrepresents genuinely ancient sexualised images of the deceased woman as eternally young and fertile, to aid in her own rebirth. Perhaps the best cinematic example of these misinterpretations was Valerie Leon’s Queen Ta-ra in Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971) – inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1903 novel Jewel of Seven Stars.

BLOOD FROM THE MUMMYS TOMB VALERIE LEON HAMMER FILMS BLACKBOXCLUB 1000

A film critic for The Guardian was quite wrong that the ‘mummy’s curse’ has no basis in ancient Egyptian reality. Imprecations against those who would damage monuments are common in Pharaonic sources, and appeals to the spirits of the ‘bad’ dead to desist from bringing harm are relatively well-attested. The Demotic tale of ‘Setne Khaemwaset’ vividly describes the consequences of stealing secret knowledge from the tomb of a magician. The same trope of illicitly acquiring ancient, hidden knowledge from an ‘archive’ of papyrus scrolls still appears here, in 2017, attesting to its continuing fascination.

So, what will this film add to – or detract from – popular knowledge of ancient Egypt? Well, the impact of the movie will likely be lessened by the fact it is not a ‘family’ film; it is aimed at an older audience than the Abbott and Costello-style treatment of the 1999 franchise. It represents ancient Egypt (specifically the ‘New Kingdom’ – described variously as ‘5000’ or ‘3000’ years ago) as a place of sensual exoticism – but also of disquieting horror. There is little point in quibbling about individual points of inaccuracy – if anything, the overall effect was more ‘accurate’ to our present idea of ancient Egypt than many previous ‘Mummy’ movies.

Most people who enter Manchester Museum have some idea of Egyptian mummies from fiction. For many visitors, mummies are not real. Our other main attraction in Manchester – ‘Stan’ the T-Rex – is a cast; many people have no experience of seeing a real corpse; mummies exist in fiction, alongside werewolves and vampires – so can’t be real. Given that this new ‘Mummy’ launches Universal’s ‘Dark Universe’ series of such characters, this film will likely reinforce these assumptions.

Egyptian mummies exist in a strange dimension between desire and revulsion. This film exploits that quandary more than most of recent times. Although she is evil, there are moments when one feels sympathetic towards Ahmanet. In the end, the film proves that unlike many other subjects contained within – and created by – museum collections, ancient Egyptian material has a uniquely seductive mixture of glamour and horror – of sex and death – that people are drawn to time after time.

For museums, it is useful to have this ‘pop’ fantasy as a counterpoint to debunk.

1 Comment

Filed under Curator's Diary, Egypt events, Egyptian mummies

Journeys across the sea and beyond: talking about current issues at Manchester Museum

Learning at Manchester Museum

You might notice on your next visit to the Museum that we have some new additions to our displays.

Our curators are thinking a lot about contemporary collecting and how we as an organisation respond to current issues such as climate change and migration.

Some of our new installations might raise some complex feelings in some of your pupils, so we wanted you to be aware in advance of some of the things you may encounter on your visit and suggest how you might want to utilise these objects to start conversations with your pupils about the issues they highlight.

Refugee Lifejacket

Life jacket from Lesvos on display at Manchester Museum Refugee’s lifejacket from Lesvos in the entrance of Manchester Museum

For example, a refugee’s lifejacket, from the Greek island of Lesvos,  has recently gone on display in the main entrance. As Bryan Sitch, a curator here, has said:

“Our mission is to promote understanding between different cultures and to work towards…

View original post 494 more words

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Zahed Taj-Eddin’s ‘Shabtis: Suspended Truth’, 1 April – 30th June 2017

Zahed Taj-Eddin’s ‘Shabtis: Suspended Truth’ to feature at Manchester Museum

Responding to the current political debate on the subject of migration, Manchester Museum has commissioned a gallery installation by Syrian-born artist Zahed Taj-Eddin, which reflects on the Museum’s world-class Egyptology collection. Zahed Taj-Eddin was inspired particularly by Manchester Museum’s extensive collection of shabti figurines, which were placed in large numbers in tombs to act as servants for the afterlife. He has previously created 99 faience ceramic ‘Nu’ Shabtis for popular shows at the V&A, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology and elsewhere.

IMG_9787_M1[3][1].jpg
Zahed’s new work places a multitude of his ‘Nu’ Shabti figures in new and unexpected contexts, many suspended as if floating in the main Ancient Worlds gallery space. The focus of the installation is to reflect the experience of migrants on a boat travelling across the Mediterranean towards a new existence.
Zahed said: “For this new installation I decided to suspend my ‘Nu’ Shabtis in the Museum
galleries. They are taking a new journey into time and space; suspended between the past and the present, searching for a new truth, different from the one they were made for. The display invites visitors to think about ancient and modern human issues such as the beliefs and actions that lead us to venture into the unknown and explore a better life beyond.”
Dr Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and Sudan, said: “Our aim in working with Zahed has been to address contentious social questions through the lens of archaeological collections; to use seemingly familiar objects and provoke discussion of big contemporary topics. Zahed’s sculptures are both serious political commentary and enthralling objects in their own right.”
Late Period shabti on white.jpgZahed’s installation is accompanied by a display of more than 250 ancient examples from one of the world’s most important private collections of shabtis, many never seen on public display before.

Narrow and broad bladed hoes on white

Shabtis from the Kemehu Collection

‘Shabtis: Suspended Truth’ will be on view at in Manchester Museum’s Ancient Worlds galleries from the 1 st of April until the 30th of June 2017.

#MMShabtis

Leave a comment

Filed under Egypt events, Egypt events at the Manchester Museum

Raising Aspirations: Exploring Ancient Egyptian Art

Great work on Egyptian art from our Learning Team

Learning at Manchester Museum

img_5110I was recently contacted by a teacher from Tameside College’s  Aspirations Department (I love that there is such a department exists!) who teaches  a group of young people with learning disabilities (aged 16-20) on an Entry level 2 study programme.  They have been studying a BTEC unit titled Exploring Art,  where they had to plan and produce a piece of art within 15 weeks.

“In order to get some ideas and inspiration we visited Manchester Museum and as a result of that the learners chose Ancient Egypt as their theme. After viewing what the Museum had on display the students came up with some marvellous ideas.  Each learner made a mood board displaying their idea and the tools and equipment they planned on using to create their piece of art work and finally creating their own piece: the results were fantastic.”

Their teacher was really pleased to be able to share these images of the process…

View original post 404 more words

Leave a comment

by | February 20, 2017 · 2:59 pm

New year, new job!

Manchester Museum welcomes Dr Lidija McKnight on three-month secondment as Project Curator

Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank

Well, here we are at the start of a new year! The time seems to fly by, especially in the world of museums when the continual cycle of exhibitions seems relentless. This is particularly evident this year as I have started a three-month secondment at Manchester Museum, during which I will be working as Project Curator alongside Campbell Price, the Curator of Egypt and Sudan. I have worked with the Museum for many years now, both as a researcher on the collections and on the recent ‘Gifts for the Gods’ exhibition, so it feels strangely comforting to now have a desk there! Knowing all the staff (just about!) has made it much easier to fit in and everyone has been really welcoming.

‘Gifts for the Gods’ has been really successful at World Museum Liverpool, with lots of good feedback on the design, content and themes. On Saturday 28th January, Campbell…

View original post 216 more words

Leave a comment

by | January 17, 2017 · 8:13 pm