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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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Texts in Translation #8: The stela of Mery-Re, Overseer of Works on a colossal statue (Acc. no. R4566 1937)

Stela R4566 1937

Stela R4566 1937. Photo courtesy of Steven Snape.

This small (21cm high) basalt stela of Mery-Re is a modest commemoration of a man responsible for the construction of a mighty monument. Mery-Re was ‘Overseer of Works’ on the colossal statue named ‘Re-of-Rulers’, one of the many colossi of Ramesses II (c. 1279-1213 BC). Ramesses followed his illustrious predecessor Amenhotep III in creating a large number of colossal statues of himself, each with its own name. Giving a statue a name imparted it with a separate divine identity, making the colossus suited to being singled out for worship as a fully fledged deity. These named statues, what we might term cult colossi, were usually set up outside temples, at what one scholar calls the “boundary between the sacred and the profane.” They appear on a number of other stelae, being adored by range of ordinary people.

To the left, the text on our stela identifies the donor:
Made by the Overseer of Works of (the statue) Re-of-Rulers, Mery-Re.

Mery-Re faces, and offers flowers to, a seated figure of the goddess Satet, on the right. She is captioned: Satet, Lady of Elephantine, Lady of the Sky.

Mery-Re’s graffito on a rock at Sehel Island. Gina Criscenzo-Laycock added for scale.

By chance, friends and colleagues of mine from the University of Liverpool had visited Sehel Island, just upriver of Elephantine Island near modern Aswan, some years ago. Among the many rock cut inscriptions there, they took a photo of one graffito made in the name of Mery-Re, Overseer of Works on the (statue) Re-of-Rulers. This must surely be the same man as depicted on Acc. No. R4566 1937.

Our stela came to Manchester from the collection of Sir Henry Wellcome in the 1980s, and its exact find-spot is unknown. However, the dedication to Satet, the local goddess of Elephantine, and the graffiti at nearby Sehel point to an original location in a temple or chapel near Aswan.

Aswan was a major source of granite throughout the Pharaonic Period and it is likely that this is where the colossus named ‘Re-of-Rulers’ was quarried. The formulaic dedicatory phrase ‘Made by…’ may therefore be the result of a command of Mery-Re to a craftsman under his charge, or it may be the work of the man himself – whose own skilled hand had, no doubt, won him responsibility for overseeing work on a colossal statue of the king, and the creation of a god.

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