Category Archives: Curator’s Diary

Curator’s Diary May 2019: British Council in Rome

LBritish_Councilast month, I was fortunate to participate in the UK cultural delegation to Rome, sponsored by the British Council. This was a wonderful opportunity to share news of projects being undertaking at cultural institutions in the UK.

The 2-day networking meeting opened with a reception hosted by the British Ambassador to Italy, Jill Morris. Her residence provided the perfect atmosphere for an informal discussion about potential collaborations as we approach the UK-Italy year of culture in 2020.

It was also an important chance to meet colleagues from the UK (including one from Manchester!), whose paths have not necessarily crossed with my own – and as a direct result I am now in fruitful discussions with several institutions about prospective loans of our most significant Egyptian material while we are temporarily closed for our ‘Hello Future’ project. More on this soon.

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I was delighted to hear several speakers mention – and indeed praise – Manchester Museum for our emerging work on decolonisation – “acknowledging that the British Empire did actually happen” – with our current exhibition on the 1919 Jallianwalla Bagh massacre cited in particular. The meeting provided a welcome opportunity to open discussion with an Italian museum about taking our award-winning UK-touring exhibition ‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’ to the continent – more on THAT soon as well.

A special highlight – and the main reason I went on the trip – was meeting a colleague from the Museo Egizio, whose work has lead the way in inclusivity, caring, and imagination. A recent project with Arabic speakers drew criticism from the Italian far right, highlighting the important role of museums in social and civic rights. There’s lots we can learn at Manchester Museum from our Turinese colleagues and I look forward to ongoing dialogue.

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Naturally, there was also ample chance to visit museums and galleries. Thankfully, an ICOM card secured immediate entry into the Vatican Museums – otherwise I’d have been waiting in a queue of hundreds of people – inflated by those in town for Holy Week celebrations in the lead up to Easter. The Vatican’s Egyptian galleries had been reconfigured somewhat since my last visit 10 years ago, and showcase highlights of a marvellous collection – probably overlooked because of the strength of the rest of the Vatican’s incredible holdings. I got to see perhaps the best exhibition ever on the tendency of some sculptures to influence later ones at the National Roman Museum (complete with superbly effective lighting and sound – noted). I also managed almost to check off all of Rome’s obelisks…

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I’m particularly grateful to our Director Esme Ward for encouraging me to apply to the programme, and hope to report further collaborations with Italian institutions soon.

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The Egyptian Revolt of 1919 & its aftermath

Museum Studies placement student William Pridden considers the significance of a recently acquired historic photograph in light of the 200 year anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, and the centenary of both the 1919 Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre and the rather less well-known 1919 revolts against British rule in Egypt. 

An artefact can tell many stories. The truth of this statement grew clearer each day as I began researching a surprising photograph found in a gallery, among other assorted artefacts, from Luxor, Egypt. The photograph depicts the King of Egypt and Egyptian officials in the company of British dignitaries. What at first appeared to be a simple photo of a King visiting a foreign country soon turned into a narrative of freedom, oppression and violence: entwining the sovereignty of Egypt with the city of Manchester.

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King Fuad of Egypt with Mohamed Shaheen Pasha, private physician to the king; Amin Auis Pasha, Vice director of the royal cabinet; Ahmed Mohammad Hassanein Bey, first chamberlain; Achille Sekaly Bey; lieutenant colonel Khairy Bey, Aide-de-camp and M. Illias Ismail, Egyptian consul at Liverpool. Manchester officials: Lord Mayor, James Henry Swales; Lady Mayoress; Mr. Heath, Town Clerk; Alderman Miles Mitchel, Deputy Mayor; Aldermen T. Fox, Derwent Simpson and Robert Turner. 1927.

The photograph was taken during King Fuad’s visit to Manchester in 1927, during which time Egypt was still under occupation by the British Military despite having secured official ‘Independence’ in 1922. The King’s visit was in celebration of the area’s long history in the cotton industry as Egypt provided the vast bulk of cotton supplies to the North West at this time. However, King Fuad’s message to the Mayor of Manchester arguably alludes to the true intention of his trip: to highlight Egypt’s long struggle for self-determination.  King Fuad highlighted the importance of the Egyptian people in the growing of the cotton industry, describing the River Nile as being the lifeblood of his countrymen. The King also drew similarities between the civic governors of Manchester and Egypt in regards to their faith and character. The speech appeared to emphasise Egypt’s reliability as an independent nation and assured the British people of a continuing collaboration, finally stating that Egypt had “no truer friend or more sympathetic watcher” than the British Empire.

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Protesters against British rule, Cairo 1919

The British newspapers spoke of the crowds cheering for King Fuad, of the sun shining down on the city, of the King saluting the Cenotaph to applause:  no mention was made of the Egyptian Revolution in 1919. From March to July it is estimated that 800 Egyptian civilians were killed throughout the country with a further 39 sentenced to death by the British Empire. Those who were not killed were arrested with over 2,000 people jailed as a result of civil unrest. The revolution was an act of unity among the entire Egyptian populous with women and men, poor and rich, attempting to free the country from colonial rule.

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Egyptian women protest, 1919

The 1919 Revolution marks a continuing narrative of oppression not usually discussed in the British Media. As the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre approaches (in which 1,600 Indians lost their lives) it is important to remember the harsh reality of colonial rule. The events of the Egyptian Revolution and the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre are not independent of each other, but instead are part of a shared universal history among former colonial countries and deserve to be remembered: rather than being forgotten due to shame. The photo of King Fuad’s visit represents a struggle for freedom and the chance to make amends. By remembering these colonial transgressions, a greater dialogue on tolerance can be learnt.

 

William Pridden is a Museum Studies student at the University of Durham. The photograph (accession number 14088) was purchased in Luxor and kindly donated by Tom Hardwick in honour of my predecessor as Curator of Egyptology, Christina Riggs.

Our new exhibition Jallianwala Bagh 1919: Punjab Under Seige opens this week. The 1927 photograph will be on display in our third floor space later this month.

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Curator’s Diary October 2018 – BM Interpretation Workshop in Aswan

I have just returned from helping to facilitate a workshop on interpretation organised by the British Museum International Training Programme (ITP) at the Nubian Museum, in Aswan, southern Egypt. I was delighted to join Dr Anna Garnett, Curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, and Jane Batty and Stuart Frost,  of the BM’s Interpretation Dept. In addition to fellow facilitators Jackline Besigye (Uganda National Museum), Huzoor Choudhry (Huzoor Designs, India), Vandana Prapanna (CSMVA, Mumbai), we were given a wonderful Nubian welcome – with lively music and participatory dancing – and the chance to meet some 30 Egyptian and Sudanese colleagues.

Serious discussion

The Nubian Museum opened in 1997 and I had previously visited in 2005. It is one of those rare – and fortunate – museums that appears to defy the aging process, and I was struck by how fresh the displays still appeared, despite being relatively unchanged since my visit 13 years earlier. The Museum provided a perfect venue for discussion about interpreting Egyptian and Sudanese collections. Facilitators benefitted from a personal, introductory guided tour of the public galleries and behind the scenes spaces by the Director, Dr Hosny Abd el Rheem.

Bright, colourfully decorated education spaces contrasted with the darker, more dramatically lit display galleries. Our group were impressed by the award-winning architecture of the Museum, which is sympathetic to local building traditions. Especially effective use is made of outside spaces, including a reconstruction of a traditional Nubian House, an immersive ‘cave’ incorporating relocated rock art, and a sweeping amphitheatre space for major public performances.  The way the Museum tackled the representation of living Nubian culture – particularly surrounding issues of displacement during the construction of the Aswan High Dam – was noteworthy.

Labels – the bain of every curator’s life?

During the workshop, it was a privilege to reconnect with the vibrant ITP network on Egyptian soil, building on relationships forged through the international Summer programme, to which Manchester Museum has played host for some 10 years. Great to see several ITP past fellows and to meet new colleagues from the Ministry of Antiquities.

Discussion of interpretation focussed, inevitably, on label and panel text-writing, in addition to alternative strategies such as multimedia and performance/events. We agreed on the importance of that strange alchemy of ‘curatorial’ and ‘interpretation’ approaches to interpretation. Jane Batty introduced the BM’s very useful ‘Top 10 Tips’ for effective interpretation. I was especially struck by the importance of physically connecting text to specific objects rather than letting text float alone, in the hope that someone will read it.

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Campbell & Anna enjoying the Nubian sunshine

I have always been an advocate of object numbers on labels – the British Museum apparently less so. An excellent point that was raised in my discussion group was that it is perhaps only appropriate to dispense with accession numbers on labels if you have a reliable, working online catalogue to look the object up in or a comprehensive published catalogue for your temporary or permanent displays. Lacking these tools, accession numbers still seem a valuable tool for both collections management and finding out further information.

Throughout the almost week-long preparation for and delivery of the workshop, it really hit home just how similar our challenges are – from the biggest museum to the smallest, from Mumbai, to Cairo, Aswan to Manchester. ITP is not simply about “telling” other people how to “do” interpretation the British Museum way, but creating a genuine dialogue that can lead to collaborative interpretation. With so many excellent museum collections in Egypt and Sudan, and after this opportunity to discuss common approaches at length, I look forward to working more closely with Egyptian and Sudanese museum colleagues in future.

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Curator’s Diary June 2018: Up Close with the Sphinx, Ancient and Modern

Last month I had the chance to spend a couple of days in close proximity with the Great Sphinx at Giza whilst filming a documentary for Discovery Channel (a crash course in pithy communication, ideal for museum curators). Unrestricted admittance to the Sphinx enclosure (usually off-limits to visitors) prompted me to consider the degree of access ancient people might have had to this iconic monument, and how those ancient monuments have in turn shaped our expectation of the tourist experience today.

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In modern times, hundreds of tourists and local Cairenes pose for thousands of photos at the Great Sphinx each day. The recent cult of the selfie has assured the iconic status of this human-headed lion, whose colossal profile is particularly suited to ‘kissing’ photos. This sort of interaction has been enabled and encouraged by the convenient modern viewing platforms flanking the Great Sphinx to north and south.

This has not always been the case. Until the mid-20th Century, the Sphinx was largely covered in sand. Visitors to Giza saw the colossal head sticking out of the sand, and recorded their impressions of its forlorn, sad nature – playing perfectly into the Romantic 19th Century image of picturesque vestiges of a lost civilization. Colossal royal statues in particular fit the narrative of the despotic, Oriental ruler undone, dethroned by the progress of History. As with Shelley’s Ozymandias, ‘nothing beside remains… lone and level sands stretch far away’ from the Sphinx. As Mark Twain observed in 1869, the Sphinx is ‘grand in its loneliness.’ But the advent of photography meant that the Sphinx didn’t remain alone for long.

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Of many similar images, perhaps the most resonant is this (above) from 1882 – the year Britain tightened its colonial grip on Egypt and the same year the Egypt Exploration Fund was founded. The British officers in full dress kilts and pith helmets, some with hands imperiously on hips, make clear the sense of entitled ownership of Egypt as an imperial possession.

Any photograph is, of course, not a neutral record of ‘what happened’ – especially in archaeology, as Christina Riggs has recently demonstrated for the Harry Burton Tutankhamun archive. These colonial set-pieces with the Sphinx have at their core the same highly constructed projections as any modern selfie. Photos of the Sphinx are also a useful index of the restoration work done to beautify – and ostensibly ‘restore’ – the sculpture for popular consumption. The Sphinx is prepared today for the mass tourist market, but only VIPs can actually get up close to it.

In contrast, surprisingly little is known about ancient perceptions of the Sphinx. Leaving aside the debate of who was actually responsible for its construction (Khafre is favoured by current Egyptological consensus, and who Discovery plump for in the doc), it may seem surprising that there is no Old Kingdom reference to it at all. Only in the New Kingdom (c. 1400 BC) do textual sources talk about the statue in terms of an identity – a divine identity – as ‘Horus in the Horizon’ (Horemakhet).

Although the term ‘shesep ankh’ (lit: ‘living image’) is often cited in Egyptological publications as the term for ‘sphinx’, in fact it rather appears (by the mid-18th Dynasty at least) that this was simply an epithet of the Pharaoh as a ‘living image’ of a god, usually the deity Atum. Ancient Egyptian terms for ‘statue’ are more nuanced than the space here allows (that’ll have to wait until my book on Egyptian statues…) but it was really only the chance to spend time with Sphinx at Giza that brought these issues into focus for me.

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Tuthmose III described as ‘Living Image of Atum’ at his Karnak ‘Festival Hall’

In New Kingdom texts the Sphinx enclosure is referred to as ‘setepet’ (meaning ‘most select/chosen place’) and massive mudbrick walls would have restricted access to it, even views of it, perhaps only to the highest elite. This is in contrast to the assumption we may form based on the hordes of visitors the Sphinx receives nowadays and on apparent evidence of a Roman Period ‘viewing platform’.

The quizzical (envious? outraged?) looks I received whilst poncing about on camera between the great paws of the Sphinx, brought home to me that access is rarely equal – even to as impressive a divine image as the great Sphinx. Did I have any more right to get up close to the Sphinx than the Egyptian school children on a day out?

The Discovery documentary (due to air Stateside late Summer) gives a rather televisual interpretation of the Sphinx as a ‘Mythical Beast’, but was an opportunity to feed in my own interpretations which – I hope – make the final edit. Perhaps instead of thinking of colossal royal statues in terms of bland ‘propaganda’, we should think in terms of the divisive nature of access (physical, ritual, intellectual) to them and how this shaped ancient and modern interactions with the past.

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Curator’s Diary March 2018: Flowers reunited with mummy of Perenbast

It is something of a love story: a man and woman (perhaps husband and wife) buried together for almost 3000 years. Their small tomb chamber at Dra Abu el Naga, on the west bank of Thebes, was excavated by W.M. Flinders Petrie’s workers in 1908-1909.

Both individuals were provided with a single coffin, Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure, and boxed shabtis. In a trend particularly prevalent during the Third Intermediate Period, floral material was left on both mummies. As part of the finds division system, one mummy (belonging to a temple singer named Perenbast) and her associated objects were sent to Manchester and those of her companion (‘Mr Perenbast’) sent to Bristol.

Some 10 years ago, while working on their new Egyptian gallery, Bristol Museum World Cultures curator Sue Giles recognised that their mummy had been provided with several flowers covered in black resin – when there was no resin on the mummy. The mummy of Perenbast in Manchester, however, had been covered in a thick coat of black resin and must have had some of her flowers inadvertently sent to Bristol.

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Sue Giles pointing out the flowers on the mummy of ‘Mr Perenbast’. Photo: Dyan Dodson.

In March 2018, thanks to Sue’s efforts, an official transfer – signed by the Mayor of Bristol – was organised to reunite Perenbast with her flowers. Their identification as lotus flowers may obscure the fact that they are in fact blue waterlilies, about which there has been much debate. Regardless, the intended symbolism is of rebirth and regeneration.

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Pressed blue lillies + illustrations in our Botany collection. Photo: Rachel Webster.

Perenbast and her coffin has been the subject of particular interest of late. They are featured in both a recent documentary about Karnak and an upcoming film on the discovery of KV 64, in which Dr Aidan Dodson of Bristol University and I discuss Perenbast’s station in life. It is intriguing that both the (secondary) owner of KV 64 (Nehemesbastet) and Perenbast share the element ‘Bast(et)’, the feline goddess associated with the Delta, in their names. Perhaps the individuals were related, or at least part of a small group that had the same distinctive black coffin with decoration picked out in yellow or white. Both were beneficiaries of the intense reuse of tombs in the Third Intermediate Period.

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Understanding ancient Egyptian attitudes to animals

Our award-winning touring exhibition ‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’ opens at its fifth venue – the National Trust property at Lyme Park in Cheshire – next weekend. As part of the BBC Civilisations Festival, it seems timely to consider the popular understanding of that distinctive aspect of ancient Egyptian civilisation: the role of animals in Egyptian religion.

Ancient Egypt is synonymous in the public imagination with animals and animal imagery. Gods and hieroglyphs could take a vast range of two-and three-dimensional animal forms (the British Museum’s ‘Gayer Anderson Cat’ is one iconic example). Yet, the idea of animals as gods still fundamentally strikes us – in the West, at least – as faintly ridiculous.

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The Roman writer Juvenal (1st-2nd Century AD) asked his (Roman) readers/listeners the rhetorical question: “who knows not what monsters demented Egypt worships?” In contradistinction to the Greeks and Romans, who venerated exclusively anthropomorphic deities, the Egyptians were being mocked as primitive, deranged. Juvenal’s impressions of Egypt, as a Roman, were informed by misunderstandings, built on stereotypes and reinforced xenophobic assumptions – knowing his audience would lap it up. Something like a UK Daily Mail journalist today.

This is ironic as there is plentiful evidence for the continued patronage of Egyptian temples and cults by Roman emperors and elite members of society well into the Second Century AD. The famous Roman Period painted mummy portraits further attest to the ongoing investment in Pharaonic funerary customs. Yet Juvenal hits a nerve when he sneers at the “demented” Egyptians, exploiting his audiences’ anxieties about otherness.

Those anxieties continue to be shared today. Most visitors to our Gifts for the Gods exhibition were unfamiliar – if intrigued – with the nature of Egyptian animal mummies. Most believed that they would learn more about the Egyptians’ pets. Trying to explain the finer points of votive animal mummification on an industrial scale is challenging, given the limits on word-length and attention-spans in most museums today.

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The exhibition tries to persuade visitors to adopt a different perspective, based on an alternative set of values, and to suspend many modern preconceptions. Visitors were invited to leave messages to three different animal gods, using hieroglyphic stamps to add the relevant animal image of each deity. Analysis showed that most responses recognised the associations outlined in the exhibition interpretation (e.g. the ibis god Thoth with writing and knowledge).

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The exhibition’s ‘votive interactive’

In the UK, the pet industry accounts for billions of pounds a year. At the latest count, British people spend an average of £1150 a year on their pets. Yet pet ownership is a modern affectation, little attested in the ancient past and – interestingly – not very popular in Egypt today.

The scale of the modern pet industry is no less than Egyptian production of votive gifts – images of the gods (statues, mummies) – were produced in tens of millions and presented to temples and shrines in the earnest hope of divine favour.

Now, animals are fetishized in the West in a way that would leave the ancient Egyptians incredulous. I can imagine the reaction of an ancient time-traveller: “You spend how much on animals – in what you claim to be a Christian/secular country – and you think WE’RE weird?!”

The question is one of shifting values and of understanding the concerns and priorities of cultures in many ways different from our own. We have inherited something of Juvenal’s tabloid-worthy sneer of others, but research shows the impact exhibitions can have in countering this. It is to be hoped that the BBC’s Civilizations series tackles some of these sorts of misconceptions and follows in one of the core missions of Manchester Museum, to promote understanding between cultures of the past and of the present.

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Curator’s Diary December 2017: Returning to Egypt

Luxor

Earlier this month I was delighted to be able to spend a week based in Luxor, after an absence from Egypt of over two years. The trip was made possible thanks to a generous bequest to a University of Manchester travel fund from one of the Museum’s best-known and much-missed volunteers – the late Audrey Carter, a relative of the archaeologist Howard Carter.

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Audrey Carter in 2013

The visit had been organised by the Egypt Exploration Society for Manchester Professor Emerita Rosalie David to present her re-published book Temple Ritual at Abydos to colleagues in Egypt. Rosalie was able to present the book in person to the Minister of Antiquities, Dr Khaled el-Anani, at a press conference announcing he re-opening of two early 18th Dynasty tombs at Dra Abu el-Naga and the inner sanctuary of the Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri, reworked in the Ptolemaic Period for the cult of the sages Imhotep and Amenhotep son of Hapu. These sites are further additions to the range it is now possible to visit in Luxor. Since my last visit in 2015, tourist numbers have appreciably increased and it is to be hoped that new sites, better interpreted, will help to continue this trend.

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Rosalie David presents a copy of her book to the Minister

The trip was a wonderful opportunity to meet colleagues working in Egyptian museums and on current excavations. Particularly pleasing was evidence of recent excavations featured on display in the Luxor Museum, including a number of monumental stone statues of Amenhotep III from Kom el-Hettan. We had the opportunity to visit the site with field director Dr Hourig Sourouzian, showcasing the vast scale of the original Amenhotep III temple. Much of the core architecture of New Kingdom west bank temples before the reign of Ramesses II was in mudbrick, which as a result has now almost totally disappeared. This creates the impression of statues – notably the ‘Colossi of Memnon’ – being isolated and decontextualized. It was fascinating to see at Kom el-Hettan how intensive excavation by a large team has revealed many details that might have been assumed to have been lost – dozens of statues and thousands of fragments that show how densely populated with sculptures the temples must have once been. Selective restoration of some (often colossal) sculptures gives an impression of scale.

Every site we visited – such as the Spanish mission at the Mortuary Temple of Tuthmose III and work by Chicago House at Medinet Habu – was working towards making the results of excavations accessible through on-site interpretation and, where possible, site museums. This will significantly improve the offer for interested visitors to Luxor over the next five years.

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The Souls of Nekhen – fine bas reliefs in the Temple of Seti I 

A personal highlight was undoubtedly the temple of Seti I at Abydos, one of the best preserved temples in Egypt and – importantly – one which has not experienced the many subsequent modifications that have changed the complexion of most other temples. The quality of the limestone bas reliefs – often with original colour still preserved – is breath-taking. Conservation work on the Osirieon – the site of fieldwork by Manchester legend Margaret Murray in the early 20th Century – illustrated the ongoing efforts to preserve standing monuments.

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Abydos – one of Pharaonic Egypt’s most sacred sites, looking west

A visit to the Early Dynastic cemetery at Abydos was also very special. Known as the Umm el-Qaab (‘Mother of Pots’) due to the quantity of votive pottery left by pilgrims to the Osiris cult, Manchester Museum houses over 1000 objects from this important site.  It is always a special privilege as a curator to see the sites from whence items in the collection came. Hopefully many more people in future will be able to make this connection in person.

For more photos check out @EgyptMcr on Twitter and Instagram.

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