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the gap between museum and academic spheres in order to overcome Egyptology’s institutionalisation and sometimes outdated 19th century paradigms.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.

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.

Encountering Corpses, part 1.

A few weeks ago I attended Encountering Corpses at Manchester Museum – a conference organised as part of Manchester Metropolitan University’s ‘Humanities in Public’ programme. The conference reflected upon some of the many contexts in which we encounter the dead, from archaeological excavations and dark tourism to representations in art, politics and the media. While historically we have often thought of human remains as passive and neutral, stripped of agency and identity, this debate encouraged us to re-consider the agency, materiality and mobility of human remains as well as the ethics that surround different encounters.

Encountering Corpses conference at Manchester Museum.

Encountering Corpses conference at Manchester Museum.

The conference included a series of talks on human remains in a museum context, and, as speaker and Curator Dr Campbell Price explained, Manchester Museum is certainly well placed to host such a discussion. The Museum is considered by many to have started the inter-disciplinary study of human remains with some of the earliest scientific mummy un-wrappings conducted by Egyptologist and Archaeologist Margaret Murray in 1907. Since then the Museum and Manchester University has been at the centre of scientific investigations into ancient Egyptian human remains with the Manchester Mummy Project, the Ancient Mummy Tissue Bank and the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology. It is a connection that seems to have always fed into the display of ancient Egypt at the Museum.

Dr Bryan Sitch, Curator of Archaeology at Manchester Museum, presented a talk on the display of human remains in the Museum’s recent Lindow Man exhibition (2008-9). This talk highlighted the role of public consultations as an approach to making museum displays more transparent, inclusive and accountable. Public consultations for Lindow Man revealed that visitors wanted “the body to be treated respectfully and for [the Museum] to reflect different interpretations.” These responses were incorporated into the display with a wide range of people interviewed from forensic archaeologists to pagan community group members. However, this multi-vocal interpretive style received mixed reviews from the visiting public with people questioning the authority of the voices represented.

The exhibition also provided an opportunity for visitors to answer the question ‘Do you think it is right to display human remains?’ – over 12,500 comments were received with 67% of visitors saying that museums should display human remains. It was interesting to hear that these consultations had a wider impact within the Museum beyond the Lindow Man exhibition, contributing to the re-display of ancient Egyptian mummies in the new Ancient Worlds gallery.

A visitor examines the preserved body of Asru in the Ancient Worlds gallery.

A visitor examines the preserved body of Asru in the Ancient Worlds gallery.

Dr Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum, spoke about how displays of ancient Egypt have always provided a unique encounter with human remains – one that certainly seems very different from any other within the museum setting. This talk examined how those responsible for the display and interpretation of Egyptian mummies have the difficult challenge of managing visitor’s pre-conceptions, high expectations and a fair amount of skepticism.

The preservation bias in the Egyptian archaeological record has resulted in museum narratives that focus predominantly on death and the afterlife. For Dr Price, who has recently curated the re-development of the Ancient Worlds gallery (2012) including the re-display of human remains, this historic portrayal of ancient Egyptians as a culture obsessed with death, coupled with our familiarity with mummies in the popular imagination, has made it difficult to bring new perspectives to their display and interpretation. This talk examined how the fictionalisation of Egyptian mummies has resulted in their “hyper-real” status, leading many visitors to question the authenticity of the human remains on display. Historically this has not been helped by the nineteenth century practice of creating mock-contexts and mock-biographies for mummies on display.

While it is often felt that the preservation bias in favour of funerary archaeology can dominate the museum space physically, Dr Price was also keen to highlight the unique value and potential of this evidence in guiding how we present and interpret human remains to a museum audience. This wealth of textual and archaeological evidence allows us to understand ancient Egyptian beliefs, as well as their expectations and intentions for their own human remains that could help to inform museum practice. Furthermore it can provide significant interpretive information to help visitors understand more about the person rather than the ‘mummy’.