Yesterday I attended a stimulating seminar at the Egypt Centre in Swansea, organised by Curators Carolyn Graves-Brown and Wendy Goodridge on behalf of the Association of Curators for Collections from Egypt and Sudan (ACCES). The subject of the seminar was public engagement through Egyptology collections – a timely topic, given our current work here in Manchester in planning public programmes and schools sessions to compliment our Ancient Worlds galleries. It was exciting to hear so many different approaches – with varying backgrounds and levels of resources.
Fellow bloggers Kasia Szpakowska and Bev Rogers (who run the excellent ‘Ancient Egyptian Cobra Project’ and ‘Collecting Egypt’ blogs, respectively) have already covered in detail the content of individual presentations. I make a few observations on discussions here, and hope to produce a fuller account of the workshop for the ACCES website soon.
The range of presentations showed that we have definitely moved beyond ‘Musty Mummies’, but the display of Egyptian human remains continues to stimulate debate. Manchester Museum, with its large number of mummies, has in the past been at the heart of this debate. The Egypt Centre, in contrast, houses some individual mummified body parts rather than full mummies and does not display any of them. It was, therefore, interesting to hear of a comparable approach adopted in Cornwall to our own plans to re-display Asru: the respectful partial covering of the body with linen, within the deceased’s own coffin, but with the lid raised enough to be able to view the head, shoulders and feet. The sensitive display of an Early Dynastic burial at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery involved illuminating a dark display space by touching two buttons simultaneously – to prevent the accidental or playful action of children. Clearly, each display choice should fit each individual collection. It is impossible – and undesirable – to impose a general rule for every museum that holds Egyptian human remains.
An aspect of the new Royal Cornwall Museum display that I particularly enjoyed was the use of animated vignettes on two 25th Dynasty coffins to illustrate the funeral of the deceased and his entry into the afterlife. It is, I think, always more engaging to use real objects, or images from them, than random ones, unconnected with a museum’s own collection. Curator Jane Marley recognised this point, and highlighted the problems of pre-opening time factors in using a museum’s own rather than generic images for marketing.
Another part of the day which I found most useful – and not, to my knowledge, ever formally discussed at an ACCES event – was the talk by Egypt Centre Volunteer Manager Ashleigh Taylor on the work of voluntary staff. Demonstrations by volunteers in the Egypt Centre illustrated the diverse and enthusiastic range of skills on offer there. We are likewise very lucky in Manchester to have a great team of volunteers in place. This is one important aspect of public engagement that can play a part in all Egyptology collections. As Ashleigh pointed out, volunteers are a major source of enthusiasm that can really bring a collection – large or small – to life.
ACCES exists to share information and good practice between “specialist” and “non-specialist” curators of collections with material from Ancient Egypt and Sudan. A fear that I had when I worked for the organisation was that we were in danger of patronising “non-specialist” colleagues. The Swansea seminar went a long way to allay any such fears. As Carolyn rightly pointed out in her opening remarks, the sharing of information is a two-way street, and – as a “specialist” curator – I found I learned a lot from the day. At the end of this year I will take up the Chair of ACCES, and look forward to welcoming participants to an event at Manchester in the not-too-distant future.