Category Archives: Curator’s Diary

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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Curator’s Diary November 2017: My First Trip to Sudan

Last week I returned from six days in Sudan, my first ever trip to the country. Despite many visits to neighbouring Egypt, I have always wanted to visit Sudan but not quite managed. I have been especially aware of this since my appointment in 2011 as Curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum, which holds some 2000 Sudanese antiquities. As a guest of staff at the British Embassy in Khartoum, I was very grateful for their hospitality and the logistical help afforded in seeing so much of this beautiful country over a short period. Tourism is not nearly as widespread in Sudan as it is in Egypt, which has definite advantages (and some drawbacks) for the interested visitor.

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Sufi dancing at Omdurman

A personal highlight was witnessing Sufi dancing at the mosque of Hamed al Nil, at Omdurman just outside Khartoum, at dusk after Friday prayers. Although an earnest (if joyful) means of religious expression, I was stuck by the openness of participants to outsiders and was one of several Western onlookers being warmly welcomed. ‘Whirling dervishes’ (a term used for the principal participants) are often presented as something of a tourist sideshow, but what I experienced was unlike anything I’d seen in more tourist-oriented Egypt. The clouds of incense, bright green garments of some of those who took part (with tall crowns of almost ‘Osirian’ type), rhythmic drum beats and chanting evoked something very ancient. Most striking was the location of the performance next to a cemetery, a juxtaposition of the living and the dead which may seem strange to a Western audience but which is common to many ancient and living cultures. The lively dancing suggested the sorts of experienced but ‘ephemeral’ practices that simply do not survive in the archaeological record but which were nonetheless impressive and important.

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Rocky outcrop at Gebel Barkal, interpreted in ancient times as a rearing cobra sacred to the god Amun

Over several days I was able to visit a number of archaeological sites. Sudan was home to a number of power centres between c. 750 BC and 300 AD – known variously as the Kushite, Napatan and Meroitic empires. Gebel Barkal, 400km north of Khartoum, is the site of a major temple to the god Amun begun by the Egyptian pharaoh Tuthmose III (c. 1481-1425 BC). It was later the spiritual home of a family of Kushite kings who ruled both Egypt and Kush as the 25th Dynasty of Pharaohs. Climbing the mountain at sunset provided an incredible view of surrounding landscape, and birds-eye view of the interconnections of monuments that ancient people will have known.

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Pyramids at Meroe

It is now a well-known pub-quiz fact that Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt; these steep-sided examples are clustered mainly at the sites of Meroe, Nuri, El-Kurru and Gebel Barkal. Changing forms of scene content and stylistic expression are noticeable in the small adjoining decorated chapels of many pyramids, several of which have been restored after being blown up in the search for treasure by an Italian explorer in the 1830s. Unlike the Egyptian pyramids, these monuments sit essentially alone in the desert, far from encroaching conurbations, and as a result are highly photogenic. This may obscure their serious purpose as tombs. This funerary function is made clear in the painted burial chamber of Tanwetamani, the last king of the Kushite 25th Dynasty (c. 650 BC), at El-Kurru. Viewing of these vivid scenes by torchlight was another personal highlight.

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Painted underworld images inside the pyramid of Tanwetamani

The largest cluster of pyramids is at Meroe, around 200km north of Khartoum.  It was a special privilege to be given a tour of the current excavations at The Royal City of Meroe by Jane Humphris. Jane and her team are demonstrating that Meroe was a major centre of iron production, which fuelled a mighty military. It had been excavated at the beginning of the Twentieth Century by John Garstang, an archaeologist based at the University of Liverpool – my alma mater, but modern techniques are salvaging many details that Garstang overlooked.

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Appreciating a barque stand in temple at Royal City of Meroe

Having attended a fundraising ball held by the Khartoum Caledonian Society and met the British Ambassador Michael Aron, it was of interest to observe some of the mechanics of modern diplomacy in a country often characterised by Egyptologists as an ‘imperial’ possession of New Kingdom Egypt (c. 1450-1100 BC), echoing experiences of British colonialism in the Nineteenth Century AD. My visit also afforded the opportunity to speak with officials involved in international efforts to understand migration within Africa today and to tackle human trafficking and exploitation. Modern concerns reflect ancient realities, raising important questions about how ancient cultures such as those of Egypt and Sudan – but also of universal experiences such as migration – can be represented in museums.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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