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.

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