Category Archives: Curator’s Diary

Curator’s diary July 2016: Egyptomania at Biddulph Grange

Yesterday several curators from Manchester Museum had the pleasure of visiting  Biddulph Grange, a National Trust property in north Staffordshire. We are particularly interested in exploring the theme of migration – of people, objects and ideas – and in ways of capturing the connections. Biddulph Grange represents a wonderful example of multi-cultural influences in the later Nineteenth Century that stretches across traditionally separate areas of Botany, Geology and Egyptology.

In 1840, the horticulturist James Bateman (1811–1897) moved to the 15 acre estate and with help of friend Edward Cooke, developed splendid gardens. Edward Cooke is known to have visited Egypt himself and to have been acquainted with the famous Scottish painter David Roberts, whose many drawings and watercolour sketches made while he was in Egypt heavily influenced British ideas about the country. Together Bateman and Cooke created several discrete areas in the Biddulph gardens: China, the Himalayas, Egypt and a didactic geology gallery.


Biddulph’s Egyptian court was created between 1859 and 1862. It combines topiary in the form of a pyramid and two squat obelisks with stone features: two pairs of sphinxes, a cavetto corniced doorway leading to a passageway ending in a dimly-lit chamber with (rather creepy) baboon statue. The statuary is the work of sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894). Hawkins created sculptures of dinosaurs in concrete for the 1851 Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace and was likely to have been inspired by the impressive Egyptian court designed by Owen Jones there. Jones’ designs are, however, more faithful to the ancient originals.

At Biddulph, cultures have been mixed in an eclectic, Orientalising soup – a great example of the migration – and melding – of ideas. Part of the Chinese garden has a gilded bovine statue, provided with a sun disk between its horns – making it resemble the sacred Apis Bull of Egypt rather than a decorative feature found in the Far East.


The Pharaonic gateway has the a winged sundisk – however the usual rearing cobras (uraei) either side of the disk have been re(mis?)interpreted as the heads of birds. Combined with the feathered wings and disk, these seem intended to represent peacocks!


Within, sits a statue of a baboon or ‘Ape of Thoth’ – a type of statue we have in the collection. Like our example, the baboon sits with hands on knees; the Biddulph example has stylised fur and pectoral ornament handing from its neck. The face, however, is much more intentionally grotesque than a Pharaonic example and may be the result from borrowing from a Chinese dragon. The overall effect – with red-tinted sky-light above – is reminiscent of the focal point of an animal mummy catacomb. It is intriguing to imagine that a tourist visit to such a catacomb (which were common in the 19th Century)  may have inspired this spooky space.


To anyone familiar with ancient Egyptian art, the two pairs of sphinxes look rather severe – but they carry all the essential elements: the striped ‘nemes’-headcloth worn by the Pharaoh, a beard attached to the chin by a strap, an unidentified object in place of the expected rearing cobra (uraeus) on the brow, and even an identifiable inscription. Although somewhat weathered, this was clearly an attempt to represent the two main names of the Pharaoh in oval-shaped cartouches: one, the ‘Son of Ra’ name and the ‘King of Upper and Lower Egypt’ name. Perhaps the name of Ramesses III was the model.


Although Egyptianising (and genuinely ancient) pieces are not uncommon in stately homes of the Nineteenth Century, what is usual at Biddulph is that the use of Egyptian imagery is so consistent and self-contained in one area of the estate. Set amongst other elements, the ‘Egyptomania’ of the Egyptian court is a fine illustration of how exotic ideas and motifs moved and morphed over time and space.



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Curator’s Diary, March 2016: Examining coffins and the display of ‘beauty’

2TempleplaceI recently visited two current Egyptological exhibitions. The first was ‘Beyond Beauty: Transforming the Body in Ancient Egypt’ at Two Temple Place in London. ‘Beyond Beauty’ presents a diverse range of objects from small Egyptology collections around the UK, with particular attention paid to archaeological context and the role of regional funding in supporting British archaeologists excavating in Egypt. It is, therefore, something of an irony that at least one of the lending institutions is threatened with closure and the exhibition is being staged in the heart of London.

The venue, Two Temple Place, is undeniably stunning. It provides a stark contrast to the Pharaonic items on display, without being immediately overwhelming. ‘Beauty’ is the organising theme, from cosmetic items and jewellery to the idealised form of beauty represented by the decorated coffin. Because the ideals of eternal beauty and perfection pervaded (elite) Egyptian society, there is a feeling that everything and anything Egyptian might, conveniently, fit the bill for inclusion. Yet the exhibition’s interpretation succeeds in saying something meaningful about ideals of beauty in different contexts – both in the ancient and modern world (witness the gift shop).

A real strength is that the material in the exhibition is either not usually on display or is somehow lost in its usual display setting. There is an admirable emphasis on the process of the chances of archaeological discovery, export and subsequent acquisition by UK institutions. The fact that even fairly badly damaged pieces (such as the key image used in marketing) appeal to our modern aesthetic sensibilities is a testament to the intrinsic ‘beauty’ of (and our voracious appetite for) Pharaonic things today.

This theme is echoed in the exhibition ‘Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt’ at the Fitzwilliam Museum, part of the University of Cambridge. This show focuses on Egyptian coffins, drawn largely from the Fitz’s own (impressive) collection.
There has been a notable increase in Egyptian coffin studies in the last few years, with new techniques more and more being applied to understand their construction, as once those techniques were solely focussed on mummies. This research work is clearly the chief inspiration for the exhibition, with a focus on materials and the crafting of coffins. Lengthy interpretation emphasises this. Borrowing the idea, perhaps, from a recent exhibition on the Bab el Gasus cache in Leiden, a conservation lab is recreated in the exhibition space to great effect. There were audible gasps when visitors I observed realised that no glass stood in the way of them and the ‘action’. This work has revealed many new facets to the coFitzffins – not least the prevalence of extensive reuse.

Here too, as in Two Temple Place, the broken – and rather sad-looking – components of coffins are shown as objects worth of display in their own right. Often, in bigger collections with more well-preserved examples, these broken parts have been relegated to storerooms (we have many in Manchester, for sure). It is therefore refreshing – and actually much more representative of the nature of Egyptology collections as a whole – to show these dismembered parts. Even as orphaned hands and faces (again, a coffin face is used as ‘cover image’) these items still have a distinct appeal, which perhaps explains why they were so commonly collected and, therefore, are largely without a secure archaeological provenance.

As very often in Egypt-themed exhibitions, it was not clear to me that visitors to either show fully understood the intended thematic selection of pieces. In that way, both exhibitions highlight the continued, inherent appeal of displays of (recognisably) Egyptian material, regardless of the clever connections we museum sorts think we’re making. Ultimately, the general public isn’t overly concerned with these.

The enduring fascination with (pretty and recognisable) Egyptian things shows no signs of decline.

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Curator’s Diary 20/05/15: Discussing & Displaying Tutankhamun

Last week I attended a conference on the complexities of moving and displaying objects from the tomb of Tutankhamun. These world-renowned artefacts, from perhaps the greatest archaeological find in history, have already begun to be moved from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square to a new home in the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) in Giza, which will display objects focusing on the themes of kingship and eternity – including the Tutankhamun tomb group. International participants met between 10-14th May in various venues in Cairo to discuss possible approaches.

Dr Tarek Tawfik, Director of the Grand Egyptian Museum Project, opens the conference

Dr Tarek Tawfik, Director of the Grand Egyptian Museum Project, opens the Tutankhamun conference at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC)

The issues posed by the move are manifold. How to conserve often very fragile objects that have rarely – if ever – left their 90 year old display cases? How to transport them safely? How to interpret them in their new display space? There is no doubt that Tutankhamun is a world-wide celebrity, and that his mummy mask is an iconic, instantly recognisable image of ancient Egypt around the world. Ever since the discovery of the tomb by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in November 1922, the objects have spawned an interest in popular culture – ‘Tutmania’. The ongoing interest in aspects of the discovery, clearance, and subsequent popular influence of the tomb’s contents was well-illustrated in a recent exhibition – ‘Discovering Tut’ – at the Ashmolean in Oxford.

View from the Grand Egyptian Museum site towards the three pyramids at Giza. A visitor centre is planned for Spring 2016, with an initial opening in 2018.

View from the Grand Egyptian Museum site towards the three pyramids at Giza. A visitor centre is planned for Spring 2016, with an initial opening in 2018.

But despite all this attention, Egyptologists often falter when asked to explain the importance of the tomb. And this is a significant part of the problem: Egyptology doesn’t really know how to handle the success of Tutankhamun, and so the challenge for the new display will be to harness the extraordinary public interest in the Boy King and at the same time to correct assumptions and misconceptions about the king, the tomb, and ancient Egypt in general.

At the conference we discussed how to present individual objects and object categories, the broader historical context of Tutankhamun’s time, and the value of digital interpretation. These are a set of issues many museums face, including here in Manchester. One big task is trying to distil recent scholarship and present it in an engaging way. Most visitors to the current Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square are foreign tourists on package holidays; these people tend only have time to see highlights and so a priority will be to allow free flow of movement for these groups whilst also providing access for visitors with more time. A recommendation that was welcomed by participants is a dedicated space in the new Grand Egyptian Museum to showcase research – the everyday work of conservators and Egyptologists that increases our understanding of the objects.

Burton's photo of statuettes wrapped in linen, from the so-called 'Treasury'

Burton’s photo of statuettes wrapped in linen, from the so-called ‘Treasury’

Another point of discussion centred on how to arrange the objects – for example, the ancient importance of objects being carefully wrapped in linen before being sealed in the tomb. While this is acknowledged by Egyptologists as endowing and maintaining the sanctity of statuettes of the king, deities and other ritual objects, the linen is often removed for display and is mostly unknown to visitors. I was interested to hear, therefore, about an option to ‘re-dress’ some of the statuettes for display, as they appeared in famous 1920s photographs by Harry Burton.

Towards the end of the conference we discussed the value of replicas. Confirming my own impressions, colleagues from Germany reported that the majority of those who visited replica exhibitions of the tomb were more likely to want to go and see the original objects. This reflects a broader effect of Egyptian collections worldwide; having seen some objects, interested people will want to travel to see more. The innate public desire to know more is a big motivation for the team developing content for the galleries. I wish them luck in this impressive task; the initial opening of the GEM is expected in 2018.


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New light under old wrappings (I): Reinvestigating Asru

Inner coffin of Asru

Inner coffin of Asru

The mummy and coffins of Asru, an elite lady from 25th-26th Dynasty (c. 750-525 BC) Thebes, were among the earliest additions to what was to become the Manchester Museum collection when they were donated to the Manchester Natural History Society by William and Robert Garnett in 1825. She has already been unwrapped, probably at one of the fashionable ‘mummy unrollings’ of the period. In modern times, Asru proved to be the perfect patient when she was investigated by the Manchester Egyptian Mummy Project in the 1970s, because she had suffered from so many ailments – including arthritis, and parasitic infestations such as Strongyloides and Schistosomiasis (Bilharzia).

In 2012, in preparation for the re-opening of our Ancient Worlds galleries, all of the Museum’s 20 complete human mummies – including Asru – were scanned using the most up-to-date technology at the nearby Manchester Children’s hospital. The scans, conducted in collaboration with Professor of Radiology Judith Adams, featured on a number of TV reports but much of the new information derived did not become apparent until the scans had been properly and carefully analysed, sometimes taking months after the scanning session. PhD researcher Robert Loynes was instrumental, bringing his knowledge as a medical practitioner to the study of mummified remains.

Asru. Photo by Paul Cliff.

Asru. Photo by Paul Cliff.

The latest CT-scans confirmed Asru to have been an elderly woman for ancient Egypt, between 50 and 60 years of age at death. Interestingly, there was new evidence of arthritis in her neck, consistent with bearing a heavy weight over a prolonged period. Greater Manchester Police had established in the 1970s that, on the basis of her fingerprints, Asru’s hands and feet showed that she had lived a life of comparative ease. Perhaps what she carried on her head had a ritual rather than practical function?

Most interesting of all was the new information revealed about Asru’s mummification technique. CT-scans confirmed that, like many Egyptian mummies, Asru’s brain had been removed from the skull. Yet, rather than evidencing the standard method of extracting the brain through the nose, Asru’s ethmoid bone was found to be intact. Instead, transorbital excerebration had been performed: the removal of brain matter through the eye sockets. This is known in other cases but appears to have been extremely unusual.


Asru’s outer coffin base. Photo by Paul Cliff.

Recently an opportunity also arose to examine Asru’s two coffins more closely, and to read the extensive inscriptions on them. These texts are mainly formulaic prayers for offerings and provide very little in the way of personal information. This is contrast to ideas held when mummies and coffins, like those of Asru, were arriving in the West; collectors believed that the texts were largely biographical and gave detailed accounts of the life of the coffins’ occupant. Such ‘biographies’ that were supplied in displays were often completely fictional, in an attempt to add interest and a humanising gloss to a curiosity. Thus, when Asru (read as ‘Asroni’) was first exhibited she was referred to as a ‘maid of honour in the court of the 20th(!) pharaoh’ – perhaps just because of the prestigious ‘look’ of her mummy and coffins.

Detail of Asru's outer coffin, giving genealogical information

Detail of Asru’s outer coffin, giving genealogical information

Asru’s own name means “Her arm against them”, probably a reference to the protective power of the goddess Mut, consort of the Theban god Amun. This apotropaic formulation is especially typical for non-royal names during the Late Period (c. 750-30 BC). Asru holds no titles and is in fact only ever designated ‘Lady of the House’ (= ‘married woman’) on her coffins. The title ‘temple singer’ may come from confusion with other female mummies in the collection or developed out of her false identity as a ‘handmaiden.’

Most excitingly of all, it has been possible to read the names of her parents. Asru’s mother is identified as the ‘Lady of the House’ Ta-di-amun (‘She whom Amun has given’) and her father was called Pa-kush (‘The Kushite’), a ‘document scribe of the southern region’.

Given that, based on the style of her coffins, Asru is likely to have lived and died at Thebes in the 25-26th Dynasty, this is of potentially great interest. Egypt was ruled by Kushite kings during the 25th Dynasty, who had a stronghold at Thebes. Might Asru’s father have been a part of their administration? If so, she may have been very important indeed. Such findings prove the value of reassessing evidence which may already seem well-known.

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Curator’s Diary 23/08/13: Reactions to the ‘mystery of the spinning statuette’

Neb-iww (as his name appears more likely to be read, rather than 'Neb-senu') would no doubt have been delighted by the attention. Photo: Paul Cliff.

Neb-iww (as his name appears more likely to be read, rather than ‘Neb-senu’) would no doubt have been delighted by the attention. Photo: Paul Cliff.

Never could we have imagined that a 42-second video clip would cause such a publicity storm.

The response to the story of the ‘spinning statuette’ has been quite incredible, with worldwide TV and radio attention. Millions have viewed the original YouTube clip, and countless more have seen the video on other websites. The Museum has received thousands of emails offering interpretations and asking more questions; an entire class of primary school children wrote to me individually to give their own explanations for the movement.

The comments on the blog post give a flavour of most enquiries, which it has been impossible to answer individually. People most commonly wanted to know the exact size of the statuette (25.4cm tall), the direction of the spinning movement (anti-clockwise) and if the statuette stopped in any favoured direction (it did seem to prefer a roughly easterly orientation, but never stuck in one position for more than a few days).

The explanation for the movement is disappointingly simple. This was made quite obvious when the statuette was taken out of its case during refurbishment works on the gallery a few weeks ago. The base of the statuette is convex and was prone to pivot on a certain point, and the statuette spun very easily when given the slightest nudge – or from tapping the glass shelf on which it rested. Even very subtle vibrations would cause such movement. On consulting older images of the piece on display, it was seen that a plastazote base had been put in place to stopped this action in the previous gallery. A conservation-grade membrane has now been affixed to the base of this and other objects to prevent movement in future. The source of vibrations included a combination of the footfall of visitors, traffic outside and work in and around the building. Although the precise physics of the motion are still being debated, of all the explanations offered it seemed to me that the ‘rattleback’ theory is most persuasive.

How the British tabloid 'The Sun' presented the story. Photo: Michelle Scott.

How the British tabloid ‘The Sun’ presented the story. Photo: Michelle Scott.

Regardless (or, in spite) of any such logical explanations, some people prefer other interpretations. This is simply human nature and is proof – if it were needed – of the heady combination of ancient Egypt and the apparently unexplained. It was interesting to observe the statistics on this blog at the peak of interest in the story. These revealed a common conflation and confusion in search terms, with people Google-ing ‘spinning mummies,’ ‘spinning sphinxes’ even ‘spinning amulets’ – all things that float around in the rich, exotic soup that is – for most people – ‘Ancient Egypt.’

Ultimately, the ‘spinning statue’ sensation says far more about popular culture and perceptions of ancient Egypt in 2013 than it does about any one object. There has been an understandable concern that the worldwide media attention of the ‘spinning statuette’ has reinforced tired ideas of ancient Egypt being weird, mysterious and spooky. These ideas are still deeply ingrained in modern culture and the Museum has attempted – as we have done for other topics – to challenge these through explanations of (equally interesting) Pharaonic beliefs and practices.

Yet here is an instance when one small, normally overlooked museum object became known to a broad public, well beyond those that usually visit or engage with museums. If even only a few of the people who have come to the Manchester Museum just to see the ‘spinning statue’ stay to learn something more about Ancient Worlds, or our other collections, then I think the barrage of press attention will have been worthwhile.

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Curator’s Diary 25/5/13: Advocating Ancient Egypt

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.

Forming Material Egypt 2

Participants at the ‘Forming Material Egypt’ conference

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.


Mummifying oranges with appropriately-attired Blue Peter presenters Helen and Barney.


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.

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Ancient Egypt & Nature’s Library: What is an ‘onomasticon’?

Onomasticon_picManchester Museum’s newly-refurbished Nature’s Library gallery, due to reopen on Saturday April 26th, will showcase four million natural specimens to illustrate how the natural world has been collected and catalogued and to explore the diversity of those collections.

The ancient Egyptians also catalogued the natural world around them in the form of onomastica, a type of ancient Egyptian text made up of word lists of many different things from sky and earth. The various categories focus mainly on nouns including birds, fish, food, towns and cities, plants, minerals, buildings, agriculture and different occupations. The selection of the words, and how they were ordered, shows us how the ancient Egyptians divided up and classified their world – a bit like an ancient compendium of the universe. Onomastica can be compared with modern encyclopaedia however these ancient lists only contained the words, and did not include any descriptions for those words.

Acc. no. 7220 - a painted scene from a palace floor

Acc. no. 7220 – a painted scene from a palace floor

Although we don’t know exactly why these lists were made, it is possible that they were intended to be used as training exercises for scribes when they learned to read and write. They may also have been made to act as a ‘bank’ for knowledge; a place where the ancient Egyptians could list and store all of the words which made up their world.

The earliest known onomasticon is the Ramesseum Onomasticon (Berlin Papyrus 10495) which was found in a tomb which possibly belonged to a lector, a specialist in ritual and magic, dating to the late Middle Kingdom (c. 1800-1700 BC). This tomb contained important papyri and objects, and it is possible to see some of those objects today in the Egyptian Worlds gallery at Manchester Museum. The Ramesseum Onomasticon originally contained over 300 words including birds, fish, food, towns and human anatomy. Because the onomasticon probably belonged to a lector, it is possible that the lists may have been read aloud and performed during ceremonies or rituals.

A dedicated display illustrating onomastica and the idea of the ancient Egyptian classification of the universe can be seen in the Exploring Objects gallery, which contains several natural specimens including mammals, birds, fish and minerals. These ideas will also be presented in new digital format – featuring the superb artwork of Gina Allnatt – accessible from the Manchester Ancient Worlds website, due to be launched very soon, which will combine photos, illustrations and text to tell the story of onomastica and why they are so important for the study of both ancient Egyptian and natural history.

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