Excavating Egypt, The Egypt Exploration Society.

The Egypt Exploration Society
12th-26th July 2015
Free entry
Click here for opening times

The pop-up exhibition Excavating Egypt explores the rich and fascinating history of the Egypt Exploration Society. Through the Society’s extensive archive collection the exhibition allows visitors to access the lived experience of those who organised, directed, and took part in archaeological excavations in the Nile Valley from the Society’s foundation in 1882 to the present day. The focus of Excavating Egypt lies in the characters and stories that the archives reveal, providing first-hand accounts of developments in the discipline and an alternative perspective to the history of archaeology in Egypt.

Excavating Egypt pop-up exhibition.

Excavating Egypt pop-up exhibition.

The exhibition is divided into four main sections: Prepare, Explore, Discover, and the Future. These sections guide the visitor through the process of organising and conducting an excavation, illustrated by archival images, documents, and personal anecdotes from the history of the Society. They cover everything from how to pick your team members and how to direct an excavation, to archaeological techniques and the conditions of living and working on site. The exhibition even explores the role of the archaeologist post-excavation, considering the Society’s responsibility to share its findings through the distribution of objects, the publication of results, and organising educational events for its members and the wider archaeological community.

Visitors to the exhibition can explore a wide variety of archival material usually only available to researchers by appointment. Some of the highlights include excavation diaries, such as those from Emery’s excavations at Buhen in 1957/8, correspondence from early excavators such as Petrie and Naville, watercolour paintings by a young Howard Carter, and detailed object record cards from Pendlebury’s excavations at Tell el-Amarna.

Film footage of Meir archaeological mission, 1950, projected on to tent canvas.

Film footage of Meir archaeological mission, 1950, projected on to tent canvas.

Excavating Egypt provides some wonderful and unique ways of engaging with the archive collection. Original film footage of Aylward Blackman’s mission to Meir in 1950, entitled ‘To Work’, is on show continually throughout the exhibition, projected on to tent canvas and displayed alongside the actual camera used in its filming. The Society have also included some truly excellent 3D models of excavated objects which can be accessed by scanning object record cards on display using the Augment app. In addition to this, the display of original archaeological tools and replica artefacts arranged amongst object packing crates, similar to those used in early fieldwork, really helps to contextualise the material and adds an extra dimension to the archive experience.

The exhibition, organised as part of the Festival of Archaeology, is accompanied by a great programme of events for visitors of all ages, including twice-daily tours of the exhibition, lunchtime lectures, and exclusive screenings of films from the archive. Younger visitors can get involved in a number of tailored activities too, including taking part in an on-site excavation and learning how to record and label their finds.

For those unable to attend the exhibition, you can find the text panels and some of the archival content on the Society’s pop-up website: excavatingegypt.wordpress.com. For more details of the Society’s Lucy Gura archive featured in this exhibition visit the EES website and their Flickr account where a great deal of the archive is being published online.


Two Museums awarded funding for ancient Egypt galleries.

It was announced yesterday that two UK museums have been awarded funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Wolfson Foundation for the development of their ancient Egypt galleries.

The Oriental Museum, Durham University, has been awarded £97,520 towards the re-display of their Thacker Gallery of Egypt. Named after the Museum’s founder, Professor T. W. Thacker, the gallery is one of two devoted to ancient Egypt at the Museum and will showcase some of the highlights from their Egyptian art and archaeology collection. You can find out more about the fascinating history of the Museum’s ancient Egypt collection here.

The World Museum, Liverpool, has been awarded £300,000 towards the expansion and improvement of their ancient Egypt galleries. Plans include a new ‘Mummy Room’ and the display of 4,000 objects, some of which have never been shown publicly before. The galleries will also be reconnecting with the collection’s history, with plans to tell the story of how the collection was acquired and to recreate the displays lost to bombing in the Second World War. You can find out more about the Museum’s exciting new plans, and keep up-to-date with progress, on their blog.

The Oriental Museum and World Museum are just two of twenty-five museums across England that have been awarded grants totalling £3 million. Information about other projects receiving funding from the DCMS and Wolfson Foundation can be found here.

Cairo to Constantinople, The Queen’s Gallery.

The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace
7th November 2014 – 22nd February 2015
Tickets: £0.00 – £9.75

A view of Egypt.

A view of Egypt.

Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East documents the Prince of Wales’ (Edward VII) grand tour of the Middle East in 1862 through the eyes of photographer Francis Bedford. The four-month educational tour, organised by his parents Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, took in the sites of Egypt, Palestine and the Holy Land, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece. Shown together for the first time since 1862, Bedford’s photographs, and the history of their public reception, provide a unique insight into Victorian Britain’s relationship and fascination with the region, and a rare opportunity to see the collection that “helped shape the Victorian understanding of the Middle East.”

The exhibition invites you to follow in the footsteps of the grand tour with photographs arranged chronologically by country, starting in Egypt and concluding in Greece. The collection reflects a diverse range of Victorian interests, from ancient sites to Islamic architecture, biblical landscapes to those of more recent historical interest. It also features more ethnographic style shots of ‘typical’ street scenes and of people they met along the way. Each image is coupled with a label that relates the significance of the location, often featuring relevant extracts from the Prince’s journal.

Statue of Queen Senet, 12th Dynasty.

Statue of Queen Senet, 12th Dynasty.

The display is interspersed with watercolours, archive material and artefacts that work together to contextualise the images. Collecting antiquities was actively encouraged by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who considered it an important part of their children’s education. The majority of archaeological artefacts on display were acquired by the Prince from Egypt, Rhodes and the Eastern Mediterranean during the tour, and remain part of the royal collection today. Highlights include the Papyrus of Naskhem, Priest of Amun Ra, a stunning collection of papyri found during an excavation attended by the Prince, a wooden funerary stela belonging to Nakhtmontu dating to the 3rd century BC, and a 12th dynasty statue of Queen Senet, which remains the oldest item in the royal collection. The collection gives a fascinating insight into the kind of objects that were considered desirable as souvenirs at the time and which went on to form the foundations of many Victorian established collections.

From an Egyptology perspective Cairo to Constantinople is full of fascinating little archaeological details. The number of sites and excavations visited by the Prince demonstrates just how much archaeology, as an emerging discipline, had captured the public imagination and how it was becoming increasingly significant as part of a broader education. I was particularly drawn to a watercolour by Jemima Blackburn from 1862 which captures the moment when the Prince was presented with an Egyptian mummy whilst attending his own excavation in Thebes. The small scale excavation was organised for the Prince by Sa’id Pasha, the Viceroy of Egypt, with the understanding that the Prince could keep any artefacts found.

A view of Syria and Lebanon.

A view of Syria and Lebanon.

The photographs hold great value as archaeological records, not just for Egypt but across the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Bedford’s photographs show sites and monuments pre-excavation and, in the case of examples like Luxor Temple, in the process of being excavated. Many of the photographs capture a moment in time that is now lost forever, such as the photographs of Medinet Habu which show the columns of the Coptic church that once stood in the second court. Equally, the collection is a wonderful resource for placing Egypt in its wider archaeological and geographical context, allowing an interesting comparison between archaeological sites and interests across the region.

The Millar Learning Room is a thoughtful and valuable addition to the exhibition. Aimed at families in particular, the room provides a space to explore exhibition themes and content in greater detail. From interactive screens to explore the Prince’s original journal entries and audio points to listen to John McCarthy’s BBC Radio 4 commentary, to the ‘1862 Royal Tour’ board game and dressing up box, the Millar Learning Room has elements that will appeal to visitors of all ages.

This is one exhibition where the architecture of the gallery adds to the overall narrative. The opulent and grand setting of the Queen’s Gallery, coupled with the exhibition’s sophisticated styling and design elements, certainly enhances the visitor experience.

The Millar Learning Room.

The Millar Learning Room.

The Millar Learning Room.

The Millar Learning Room.

Exhibitions on Egypt 2015: What to see this year.

Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East
The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace
7th November 2014 – 22nd February 2015
Tickets: £0.00 – £9.75

Previously on display at the Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, in Edinburgh (March – July 2013), Cairo to Constantinople continues its tour of the UK royal collections with a trip to Buckingham Palace.

This exhibition documents the Prince of Wales’ (Edward VII) grand tour of the Middle East in 1862 through the eyes of photographer Francis Bedford. Exploring the Prince’s journey through Egypt, Palestine and the Holy Land, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece, Cairo to Constantinople provides a fascinating insight into Victorian Britain’s relationship with the region and archaeology as an emerging discipline. The exhibition also has some excellent online content featuring a selection of photographs, documents and stories from the archive.

Ancient Lives: New Discoveries
The British Museum
22nd May 2014 – 19th April 2015
Tickets: £0.00 – £10.00

This exhibition tells the story of eight people from the ancient Nile Valley, covering 4,000 years from Prehistoric Egypt to Christian Sudan. Using the human remains as a starting point Ancient Lives introduces new technology and interactive displays to explore how these people lived and died. The ancient lived experience is at the heart of this exhibition and Ancient Lives presents a ground-breaking and sensitive approach to the study of human remains.

Ancient Lives: New Discoveries has proved extremely popular with British Museum visitors. Last year it received an unprecedented six month extension, taking it through to April 2015, and it is still very much in demand. If you get a chance check out the accompanying book, it’s a great addition to the exhibition.

Secret Egypt: Unravelling Truth from Mystery
Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery
24th January – 26th April 2015
Tickets: £0.00 – £4.00

Secret Egypt aims to challenge modern myths and misconceptions surrounding ancient Egypt by exploring subjects like the mummy’s curse, and answering questions such as ‘were the ancient Egyptians obsessed with death?’. This exhibition provides an interesting and eclectic mix of Egyptian archaeology and modern Egyptomania, and includes a diverse collection of 150 ancient Egyptian artefacts ranging from jewellery and ceramics to statuary and coffins.

The Secret Egypt exhibition, which has been touring UK museums since 2011, has been produced by Birmingham Museums Trust in partnership with the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum and is supported by Arts Council England. To find out more about UK tour dates and to download the Herbert Touring pack visit the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum website.

Ancient Egypt Lives Forever
Museum of St. Albans
24th January – 17th May 2015
Free entry

This exhibition offers an insight into the daily lives and funerary practices of the ancient Egyptians, covering a wide range of themes from home-life, work-life, religion and recreation. Ancient Egypt Lives Forever includes a selection of artefacts on loan from collections across the UK, such as Manchester, Liverpool, Brighton, Hertford, Ipswich and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. With an extensive programme of talks for adults and activity-led sessions for children this exhibition has something for visitors of all ages.

Egypt Explored
The Egypt Exploration Society
12th – 26th July 2015
Free entry

Founded in 1882 the Egypt Exploration Society in London houses one of the largest and most significant Egyptian archaeological archive collections in the UK. Egypt Explored will provide a unique opportunity to learn more about the history of the Society and its work in Egypt through the exploration of this world renowned collection. Find out more about the archaeologists behind the discoveries and experience what life was like on excavation when the Society opens its doors to the public in July this year.

Egypt Explored, and accompanying events, is organised as part of the UK-wide Festival of Archaeology which takes place between 11th and 26th July 2015. Further details will be announced nearer the time, so keep an eye on the Egypt Exploration Society website.

Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt
Manchester Museum
September 2015 – March 2016
Free entry

This much anticipated exhibition will tell the story of ancient Egypt’s mummified animals, placing this particular votive offering practice within its social, cultural and religious context. According to the Museum’s press release, Gifts for the Gods will also provide a more recent historical perspective by looking at the history of their excavation, collection and interpretation. This exhibition will present an exciting collaboration between Manchester Museum and the Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank Project that will explore the scientific study of these specimens.

There is not very much information out about this exhibition yet so keep checking the Museum’s website for further details. I would also recommend following the Egypt at the Manchester Museum and Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank blogs for possible exhibition updates and behind-the-scenes posts.

Do you know of any other exhibitions on Egypt happening in the UK this year? If so, I would love to hear about them! You can either reply to this post or send me an email at museumegyptology {at} gmail {dot} com.

Discovering Tutankhamun, Ashmolean Museum.

Ashmolean Museum.
24th July – 2nd November 2014.
Tickets: £4.50 – £10.00.

The Ashmolean Museum’s current exhibition breathes new life into the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. With a unique mix of archaeological artefacts, archive material and early twentieth century memorabilia, Discovering Tutankhamun succeeds in weaving together the many different histories and stories that have become associated with the tomb over time. The wealth of archival material on display, much of which is being shown in public for the first time, adds a new and exciting perspective to this well-known tale.

The exhibition is divided into three sections. The first tells the story of the discovery and the detailed recording of the tomb and its contents, set to a spectacular backdrop of Harry Burton’s original photographs. The floor to ceiling reproductions of these images, found on every wall, reflect the excitement and energy of the discovery with beautiful and breath-taking clarity. While many will be familiar with the role played by Howard Carter and his patron Lord Carnarvon, this section also draws attention to the many people involved in the archaeological process. From photographing and conserving the finds, to conducting the autopsy, Howard Carter’s team of specialists are shown as ahead of their time in their approach. Their story is told through the meticulous and methodical records they kept: diaries, plans, photographic negatives, notes, and drawings, all demonstrate the skill and patience that was required of them.

The accompanying book by exhibition curators Paul Collins and Liam McNamara.

The accompanying book by exhibition curators Paul Collins and Liam McNamara.

The second section explores how the news of the discovery was received world-wide and the wave of ‘Tut-mania’ that was to follow. The room is visually dominated by art-deco set dressings and a projection of original film footage from outside the tomb’s entrance, while an audio soundtrack of the song ‘Old King Tut’, released in 1923, successfully captures the atmosphere of the period. Here the visitor is treated to newspaper reports, exhibition posters, and fan letters, as well as fashions inspired by the discovery and items relating to the intrigue surrounding Tutankhamun’s death. Importantly, this section includes a discussion on ‘Tutankhamun and modern politics’ which explores the reaction of Egyptian nationalists at the time, its links to Egypt’s independence, and the important consequences the discovery had for Egyptian politics. It’s a fascinating and poignant contrast to the reaction of the West that I wish could have been explored in greater detail.

The third and final section focusses on archaeological context, introducing visitors to ‘Tutankhamun and his time’ through an examination of the time periods surrounding Tutankhamun’s rule. In this gallery a selection of objects from the Ashmolean’s permanent collection, alongside those on loan from the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, tell the story of the Amarna period, the return to orthodoxy, and how Tutankhamun’s name was almost lost to history. These objects are displayed in the Ashmolean’s characteristic fine arts style, with single objects well lit upon pedestal showcases, which gives you a chance to examine every intricate detail and maker’s mark. This section is concluded by returning to the present, discussing the importance of preserving the tomb in Egypt as well as the archival records housed at the Griffith Institute.

In the 75th anniversary year of the Griffith Institute at the University of Oxford, it is wonderful to see an exhibition that celebrates the relationship between archaeology and the archive. It is equally wonderful to see archives taking centre stage in an exhibition. What Discovering Tutankhamun provides is a master class in how to interpret and display archival material. Not only are there elegant mounts and excellent environmental conditions, but their use in audio soundtracks, big bold graphics and recreations of in-situ displays really adds to the dynamic, immersive, and almost theatrical experience that this exhibition has to offer.

Statement on the Loss of Antiquities from Public Collections.

The Egypt Exploration Society and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology have released a joint statement on ‘The Loss of Antiquities from Public Collections’. The statement condemns the forthcoming sale of objects excavated by Flinders Petrie at Harageh, Egypt, in 1914, which were distributed very deliberately to a “public collection”.

The statement, co-written by Dr Alice Stevenson and Dr Chris Naunton, relates to the intended sale of Egyptian antiquities by the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) St. Louis Society. The sale is due to take place at Bonhams, in London, this Thursday 2nd October 2014.

The statement can be found on the Egypt Exploration Society’s website, here, and is also available to download as a pdf, here.

Understanding Egyptian Collections, part 1.

At the beginning of September I attended the Understanding Egyptian Collections conference at the Ashmolean Museum. This two day international conference, organised by the Ashmolean’s Conservation Department in partnership with Oxford ASPIRE and ICON, explored innovative display and research projects in museums with a focus on conserving, displaying, understanding and interpreting Egyptian collections. Over the next few blog posts I hope to highlight some of the main themes from this conference.

Ashmolean Re-Development.

Ancient Egypt and Nubia gallery guide.

The first two sessions of the conference celebrated the Ashmolean’s ancient Egypt and Nubia galleries which opened in November 2011. Assistant Keeper for Ancient Egypt and Sudan, Liam McNamara, opened the conference with an overview of the collection and re-development.

The 16 month refurbishment project gave the Museum an opportunity to improve showcases, lighting and environmental controls, as well as introduce a clearer layout to the galleries and new contextualising interpretation. The re-development was also instrumental in improving documentation and storage of the collection. Liam McNamara explained how the first three months of the project was spent packing and removing 35,000 objects from the gallery, some of which had been stored beneath the original showcases. The team created an ‘Egypt Decant Database’ to record objects as they were removed, unique barcodes were introduced to improve location control, and existing stores were refitted to provide space for decanted objects. The opening session provided a great insight into how the re-development of galleries can have a greater impact and legacy beyond what is seen on display.

Inter-Disciplinary Collaborations.

Richard B. Parkinson, Professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford and Director of the Griffith Institute, provided the keynote lecture entitled ‘Egyptology Beyond the Institutional Divide’. Within this lecture, Professor Parkinson emphasised the importance of increasing inter-disciplinary relationships, bridging the gap between museum and academic spheres in order to overcome Egyptology’s institutionalisation and sometimes outdated 19th century paradigms. The intellectual relationship between the curator and conservator was highlighted as particularly significant, creating a dialogue that would allow a greater appreciation and understanding of an object’s physical materiality, as well as a vital step towards engaging wider audiences. In the Griffith Institute’s 75th anniversary year, it was poignant that collaborations between Egyptology and archives were also discussed, with the conclusion that such a wealth of documentation can help us to historicize not only individual objects but the entire discipline also.

Research Projects.
Understanding Egyptian Collections conference.

Marie Svoboda, from the J. Paul Getty Museum in California, introduced the new Ancient Panel Paintings: Examination, Analysis and Research (APPEAR) project. In collaboration with international partners, this four year study (2013-2017) aims to build a database for the comparative study of ancient mummy portraits, and similar material types, in collections around the world. The team have estimated that there are at least 1,028 mummy portraits in museums and private collections world-wide, and they hope that this study will allow researchers to compare examples in terms of historical and contextual information. In addition to the online database the project team is planning a conference in 2017, including practical workshops, and there is even the possibility of an exhibition to present and discuss the findings of the study.

Jennifer Marchant and Abigail Granville, from the Fitzwilliam Museum, spoke about their on-going project to analyse the pigments used on ancient Egyptian coffins. This presentation focussed on their use of Fibre Optic Reflectance Spectroscopy (FORS), a non-invasive means of identifying organic and inorganic pigments. The speakers highlighted the benefit of FORS as an initial assessment: this surface technique is non-invasive and portable, it carries low risk to the object with low, brief light exposures, it can identify pigments both on their own and in mixes, and has the potential to analyse binding media and coatings, albeit beyond the scope of this project. The results of this research will provide technical evidence to support the Fitzwilliam Museum’s forthcoming exhibition ‘Death on the Nile’, planned for Spring 2016.

Development Projects.

Mohamed Gamal Rashed, Museum Display and Research Director for the Grand Egyptian Museum project, introduced current designs and concepts behind some of the permanent galleries under development. The talk focussed on two permanent introductory galleries: the meet-and-greet gallery and the grand staircase, a vertical display space showcasing key ‘discovery’ objects. The Museum aims to unite Egypt’s past and present, explore matters of Egyptian identity and highlight Egypt’s responsibility in protecting its own heritage. The Grand Egyptian Museum, one of the largest museum development projects in the world, is currently under construction and is due to open in 2017.

Interpreting Egyptian Art, The British Museum.

At the end of June Alaistair Sooke, writer and presenter of BBC4’s recent documentary series Treasures of Ancient Egypt, was at the British Museum to discuss how we present and interpret ancient Egyptian art on television and in museums. He was joined in conversation by Marcel Marée, a curator from the Museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, who shares a similar interest in the history of art. The event provided an opportunity to compare and contrast two quite different approaches to interpretation, not just in terms of the media used but in the disciplinary perspectives they present. While Treasures of Ancient Egypt was keen to promote a more art historical and aesthetically-led approach, museum displays are often guided by a more traditional egyptological and archaeological viewpoint.

For Marcel Marée this topic holds particular relevance as the department is currently in the middle of a project to refresh the interpretation of the Museum’s famous Egyptian sculpture gallery, the results of which are due around November 2014. The mention of a potential temporary exhibition at the Museum in 2017/18 on how to interpret ancient Egyptian art also demonstrates that it is a topic gaining far wider appeal.

The event took the form of an entertaining and engaging conversation between the two speakers structured around some of the key themes, periods and pieces from ancient Egyptian art. This structure allowed us to consider both ancient and modern interpretations of the same pieces whilst demonstrating the development of ancient Egyptian art over time. Both speakers are keen, through their respective media, to dispel the myth that ancient Egyptian art was static and uncreative, a perception often reinforced in the media and more traditional museum displays, and want to encourage people to overcome this long-held prejudice that exists in comparison to other classical cultures.

Marcel Marée reminded the audience that, although the ancient Egyptians had no word for art, evidence shows there was certainly a great appreciation for beauty in both objects and architecture. By approaching ancient Egyptian objects as works of art and viewing them aesthetically, rather than solely from an archaeological perspective, we can breathe new life into some objects, engaging new audiences and encouraging important cross-disciplinary interpretations.

For our speakers this aesthetic approach provides a very logical and meaningful way of interpreting ancient Egypt to the public. It is clear that many of us are initially drawn to ancient Egypt through an appreciation of their visual culture and this approach would allow us to engage more with that underlying attraction. Similarly, an aesthetic approach emphasises a universal and shared commonality and is therefore a form of interpretation that can be appreciated and understood by everyone on many different levels.

It was really interesting to hear the similarities that exist between the roles of the museum curator and the television writer/presenter. Not only do they share similar responsibilities in selecting, editing and curating stories to be presented to the public, but both find themselves restricted in the stories they can tell by the availability of material culture and the preservation bias in the archaeological record. Notably, both speakers emphasised the importance of moving away from purely recounting facts to encouraging people to question evidence and former interpretations. This event highlighted how, as means of presenting and interpreting an ancient culture to the public, the media and the museum share many similarities and have much to offer each other in terms of experimenting with interpretation styles and reaching new audiences.

It was great to attend an event that truly encourages us to question and think more about how and why we interpret and present ancient Egyptian artefacts the way we do. It was even greater to see this kind of discussion happening in the public arena. We can only hope that other museums follow suit – events like this could act as a forum for sharing ideas, providing an opportunity for museum visitors to feedback and potentially influence the way museums approach their interpretation.

Encountering Corpses, part 2.

Following talks by Dr Bryan Sitch and Dr Campbell Price (see part 1) the conference provided curator-led tours of the Ancient Worlds galleries and an opportunity for the delegates to feed back on their experience of viewing human remains within a museum context. This group discussion generated a wide-range of questions and responses, demonstrating the complexity and necessity of such an open debate.

Curator Dr Campbell Price leads a group of delegates on a gallery tour.

Curator Dr Campbell Price leads a group of delegates on a gallery tour.

Much of this discussion focused on the ethics of display and the ways in which museums try to re-humanise human remains, taking into consideration the objectifying effect of the museum display case and the difficult subject-object duality of the material dead. Approaches such as referring to the deceased by name, wherever possible, and using ‘he’ or ‘she’ in interpretation were highlighted as a means of showing respect and sensitivity to the deceased. Visual interpretive methods such as facial reconstructions were also discussed, although it was felt that these methods can be distracting and/or misleading in some contexts. All agreed that context is key when it comes to display – providing a rich socio-cultural and/or scientific context allows a greater understanding of the person.

Dr Price explained how many of these approaches had been incorporated into the Ancient Worlds gallery which opened in 2012. The display of human remains within this gallery had been based upon a series of experimental phases of display, which included different ways of covering the body, this approach generated discussion amongst museum visitors and professionals, and enabled audience consultation for the re-display. As a result, Asru, an Egyptian woman from the 25th-26th dynasty whose preserved body is on display in the gallery, is covered from collar to ankle with ancient linen and has been re-situated within her coffin. As she is displayed beneath visitor’s eye-level, with the coffin lid hovering over her body, visitors are able to choose whether or not to view the human remains, and soft, motion sensor lights ensure her display is subtle. Scientific context has also been built with interviews and research from the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology.

Asru in the Ancient Worlds gallery.

Asru in the Ancient Worlds gallery.

It was felt that there is an overall lack of consensus on how to display human remains and that matters of display and reception are very much dependant on the type of museum and collection. The example of medical museums was presented in which human remains tend to be considered more as specimens than people and the group questioned whether this was a consequence of encountering a fragment rather than the whole. Similarly, the group considered the factor of time and its impact upon reception. For example, there seems to be a difference in how we view the long dead in comparison to the recently dead which feeds into our museum experience – ancient remains often feel more distant from us and therefore seem less likely to evoke an emotional response and more likely to generate curiosity.

What I found particularly fascinating in this discussion was the strong local connection that many felt for the Egyptian mummies. Many delegates recounted stories of visiting them in their childhood, referring to them as ‘old friends’ and describing the sense of loss they felt when some were taken off of display to allow for a greater material culture context in the new Ancient Worlds gallery. It would be fascinating to investigate this, and other similar localised relationships, further and find out how unique this heightened attachment is to ancient Egyptian collections and the specific values we assign them.

Above all Encountering Corpses demonstrated the importance of discussing the display and reception of human remains within an inter-disciplinary context. The way we view and understand human remains in a museum setting is informed by our prior-knowledge and experiences and has, therefore, always been framed by the many different social, cultural, medical and artistic encounters we have experienced both individually and within our cultural memory. The fact that this conference sold out six months in advance is testament to its current relevance across the humanities and social sciences. Hopefully such collaborations will lead to a more inclusive, balanced and ethical approach, not just to matters of display and reception but to wider issues relating to the care, management, conservation, research and storage of human remains within museums.