At the beginning of this week I attended a conference at UCL entitled ‘Forming Material Egypt’. The themes of the meeting centred on how collections of ancient Egyptian and Sudanese objects have been formed, and how they might be researched and disseminated today. I gave a paper on the collection of Max Robinow (1846-1900), a Manchester cotton manufacturer who assembled an impressive collection of Egyptian antiquities and donated a large proportion of these to the Museum. Although sadly largely lacking in provenance, the Robinow collection raises questions about 19th Century styles of collecting and how to present such “cherry-picked” objects to museum audiences.
Papers ranged from the subject of individual collectors to the Cairo Museum Sale Room and material from specific sites. One session focussed on the use of databases in museums, and how these can best be used for the organisation and dissemination of knowledge about collections, and how they might inter-relate with one another. The complementary use of archives to contextualise collections, and the importance of archive material in university teaching, was a recurring theme. Another key point that emerged from discussions was the need to advocate ancient Egypt. This might seem odd, given the wealth of enthusiasm amongst Egyptologists in general, but targeted advocacy of our subject – of the type that attracts serious funding – remains the exception not the norm.
In post-Revolution Egypt, the security of objects and archaeological sites in Egypt is a pressing concern but many of the underlying issues (e.g. storage space, the position of regional museums vis-à-vis the ‘central’ collections) also apply to Britain. The conference aimed to provide practical propositions for collaboration and discussions, which involved several Egyptian colleagues, were hopefully the beginning of a new form of honest dialogue. As one participant pointed out, in the aftermath of the 2011 Revolution the treatment of Egyptian cultural heritage is at a critical, historic juncture.
This week I also took part in children’s television programme Blue Peter. Having filmed our latest CT-scan – of a Roman Period child mummy (Acc. no. 1769) – last month, I appeared on the live show to demonstrate how to ‘mummify an orange’ – an activity that we have run at the Museum for several years.
With government plans to change curricula, it seems more important than ever for the Museum to advocate the study of ancient Egypt. The planned changes have potentially far-reaching implications. Where once Ancient Egypt might have been thought so popular as to “sell itself” – with school Egypt sessions experienced huge demand – if the planned changes go ahead then the Museum will have to find new ways to engage school groups with our Egyptian and Sudanese collections.
I confess I never imagined that I would ever mummify a piece of fruit live on children’s TV. But if we are to properly safeguard the Egyptian collections we have in the UK, we will have to continue to find new and exciting ways to demonstrate how important and inspirational they are for people of all ages.