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.


The Petrie Museum on Tour, London.

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology will be closed in January and February 2014 to allow for the installation of new lights within the museum space. So, until the Museum reopens to the public on Tuesday 4th March, the Petrie team have come up with a series of ‘pop-up’ events across UCL campus and Camden. With walks, talks, and object-handling sessions, the Petrie Museum on tour looks to explore innovative topics in new contexts, linking the Petrie with other spaces and museum collections at UCL.

You can find a selection of pop-up events listed at the bottom of this post. For further details and to see the full events programme visit the Petrie website.

For those interested in conservation and collections management, the Petrie is providing some fascinating updates and behind-the-scenes photos of the conservation work currently underway. You can follow their progress on the Museum’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages, or find out more in their latest blog post.

Tuesday 21 January 1-2pm
An overview of the Egyptian Students who attended the Slade School of Art and modernist artists in Egypt and how the rise of Egyptian nationalism, artists such as Mahmoud Mohktar reflected, led to a change in the way antiquities were excavated by foreign archaeologists, including Petrie.
UCL Art Museum. Drop in.

29 January 6-7.30pm
Stones, their sources, and why some were valued over others, is an aspect of elite consumption of these materials that receives little attention. This seminar addresses issues of stone preferences during antiquity and crafting through an object handling session.
UCL Rock Room. Booking essential via

13 February 6-7.30pm
What do archaeologists owe to natural science? Explore Linnaean systems of classifying life forms and Flinders Petrie’s sequence of pots; then disrupt the patterns of knowledge with Foucault.
UCL Grant Museum of Zoology. Drop in.

Wednesday 19 February 6 – 8pm
In their installation in the Flaxman Gallery, artists Lynn Dennison and Gen Doy combine sound with video projection to create an immersive work which highlights themes explored by John Flaxman in his lectures and sculptures.
Flaxman Gallery, UCL Main Library, Wilkins Building. Drop in.

20 February 6-8pm
John J. Johnston chairs an event exploring how sexuality has been classified or not through ‘Sex and History’ Jennifer Grove (University of Exeter) and ‘Queer Time Capsules’ Tim Redfern / Timberlina .
G6 Lecture Theatre, Institute of Archaeology. Booking required via

26 February 2-4pm
We will start at the Carreras ‘Black Cat’ building with a discussion of the popular image of Egypt in the 1920s. Then we will take the tube and/or walk to Jacob Epstein’s public sculpture in out door spaces in London.
Booking required via

27 February 6-9pm
A screening of ‘Amphipolis Under Siege’ featuring Athena and her girlfriend Illainus from Season 5 of Xena: Warrior Princess and an episode from Spartacus: Vengeance that shows the relationship between Agron and ex-body slave Nasir.
Wilkins Portico / G22 Lecture Theatre Pearson Building.
Booking required via

Boushra Almutawakel to Michael Rakowitz, the British Museum.

The British Museum.
The Islamic World Gallery (Room 34), Free Entry.
21st June – 2nd October 2013.

Boushra Almutawakel to Michael Rakowitz is a small temporary exhibition showcasing recent acquisitions of contemporary art by Arab artists from the Middle East. Displayed within the Islamic World gallery these works on paper are simultaneously juxtaposed with, and contextualised by, the Museum’s permanent display of artefacts exploring the history of Islamic faith, art, calligraphy, and science. All pieces within this exhibition draw upon issues concerning the Middle East today, providing a socio-political commentary, and artist’s perspective, on subjects such as conflict, cultural and religious identity, and the looting of ancient artefacts.

View of Boushra Almutawakel to Michael Rakowitz at the British Museum.

View of Boushra Almutawakel to Michael Rakowitz at the British Museum.

The exhibition features works by two Egyptian artists, Moataz Nasr and Fathi Hassan. In 2008 Nasr founded Darb 1718, a contemporary art and culture centre located in Old Cairo designed to develop the contemporary art movement in Egypt. Nasr’s work is represented by one of three pieces from his Insecure series (2006) which uses sun print techniques developed in the 19th century to explore the depths and complexities of human insecurity. The more politically hard-hitting approach of Egyptian-Sudanese artist Fathi Hassan is represented by five key pieces. These highlight central themes in Hassan’s work such as the exploration of the written and spoken word, colonial domination, and aspects of his Nubian heritage.

Michael Rakowitz display in exhibition.

Michael Rakowitz display in exhibition.

This exhibition demonstrates the value of displaying contemporary art with historic and archaeological objects, with these elements drawing from each other and acting as mutually beneficial interpretive tools. This exhibition style allows the visitor to be more actively involved with interpretation, while the diverse range of artists provides an important multi-vocal approach.

Having visited the exhibition a couple of months ago I was delighted to catch a talk last week on the new acquisitions by the Museum’s Curator of Islamic and Contemporary Middle East, Venetia Porter. The talk provided a guided tour of the exhibition, allowing the group to discuss each piece and its significance to the collection, and gave a brilliant insight into the department’s collections policy and the processes behind choosing new pieces for acquisition.

Venetia Porter, who is responsible for developing the department’s collection of modern and contemporary arts, stressed how important it is to look at political situations through the eyes of artists, and how Middle Eastern art should be considered fairly unique for its multi-layered political concepts and its ability to make you truly think. Interestingly, the talk also touched upon how so much of Middle Eastern art tends to resonate with the past and the exciting opportunity this presents in juxtaposing historical and contemporary pieces on display.

Over 250 artists from across the Middle East are represented in the department’s collection. While the department is restricted to collecting works on paper they often collaborate with other leading institutions, such as the Tate, to ensure other mediums are equally represented in other collections. As with all works on paper, these acquisitions have a limited display-life – roughly four to five months on display at a time. It was therefore great to hear the department’s aim to enhance virtual access by making new acquisitions available through the online catalogue as soon as possible after their arrival into the collection.

This exhibition originally formed part of London’s annual Shubbak Festival of contemporary Arab culture.

The Islamic World gallery at the British Museum.

The Islamic World gallery at the British Museum.

Hidden Treasures at the Petrie Museum.

Last weekend I headed off into Bloomsbury for Hidden Treasures at the Petrie Museum, an event that gave visitors the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes and be shown some of the many objects not currently on display. Throughout the afternoon Curator Alice Stevenson and Public Programmer Debbie Challis led guided tours of their specialist collections, highlighting key pieces to reflect major themes for discussion. Each tour lasted 20 minutes, running regularly throughout the afternoon, and was followed by an opportunity to chat to the museum team and ask questions about the collection.

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology houses an estimated 80,000 objects, and with only about 10% on display these events are a brilliant way for museums like the Petrie to share and make better use of stored collections.

Curator Alice Stevenson showing a slate palette to visitors.

Curator Alice Stevenson showing a slate palette to visitors.

Alice Stevenson’s Predynastic and Early Egypt tour included examples of slate palettes, mace heads and grave goods to represent aspects of everyday life, burial practice and the early use of materials. While Debbie Challis’ Ptolemaic and Roman tour showcased the museum’s collection of finds from the city of Memphis, including a series of terracotta heads, which allowed visitors to reflect upon cultural diversity and identity in the period. Both periods are well represented within the collection and have been the subject of recent research by both guides.

It was great to see two of the less iconic periods of Egyptian history sharing the focus of this event, showcasing material culture and comparing the lived experience from opposite ends of the ancient chronology. Hidden Treasures at the Petrie Museum also demonstrated the value and importance of object-centred events. Not only could visitors examine the objects in detail and experience them outside of the display case setting, something which people can often feel is a negative barrier to access, but also use them as a tool to directly engage with the latest theories and interpretations. For many museum visitors, myself included, this informal and accessible style of engagement is far more effective and conducive to learning.

Now in its second year Hidden Treasures is a national initiative, led by the Collections Trust, to promote and celebrate collections in museums and archives. This year saw over 70 museums and archives across the United Kingdom take part with special events allowing public access to a wide range of stored collections.