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.

Ancient Worlds, Manchester Museum.

View of Egyptian Worlds gallery.

View of Egyptian Worlds gallery.

The Ancient Worlds galleries opened on the 30th November 2012, marking the 100th anniversary of the first Egyptian gallery at Manchester Museum. As I toured the new galleries with the Curator of Egypt and the Sudan, Dr Campbell Price, it was amazing to see the difference since my last visit in 2009. Even though there are more objects on display than ever before, the galleries feel lighter, more spacious and as a result more inviting and engaging.

View of Discovering Archaeology gallery with image of Flinders Petrie.

View of Discovering Archaeology gallery with image of Flinders Petrie.

The first of three galleries, Discovering Archaeology, contextualises the collection by exploring our relationship with the past – presenting archaeology as a means of “defining and exploring a sense of place, community and identity.” Focussing on the human stories behind the collection the gallery introduces key figures from across the breadth of the discipline and its history, with topics including Early Collecting, Theoretical Archaeology, Understanding Materials and Public Archaeology. The gallery presents a completely holistic and analytical view of current archaeology with a focus on Manchester’s contribution to the study, care and display of archaeological objects.

Discovering Archaeology has allowed the Museum to display a greater range from their extensive archaeology collection. From an Egyptology perspective this gallery places Egypt within a global archaeological context and provides a greater understanding of Egyptian archaeology’s role within the development of the discipline. Within this gallery ancient Egypt is primarily represented through Flinders Petrie in a discussion of sequence dating, ‘setting standards in archaeology’ and his connection to Manchester beneficiary and collector Jesse Haworth.

View of the Egyptian Worlds gallery.

View of the Egyptian Worlds gallery.

The Egyptian Worlds gallery maintains that same feeling of space and light. Around the outside of the gallery objects are arranged in chronological order, displayed in cases with back-lit panels designed to project the subtle shades of an Egyptian sunrise and sunset. Beginning with Predynastic Egypt, on either side of the entranceway, and culminating with the Late Period and Late Antiquity, the Egyptian chronology runs parallel down both sides of the gallery allowing the visitor to create their own pathway. As part of this arrangement the Museum has displayed a selection of pottery from each period running around the top of the cases – a display technique that creates open storage and presents a unique visual demonstration of the development of pottery throughout Egyptian history, signifying its importance and consistency as an archaeological find.

The gallery explores each period and its objects through a wide range of themes and sub-themes presented through varying layers of interpretation, from large back-lit text panels, to object labels and case labels on the glass. The new display really showcases Manchester Museum’s extensive collection of daily life objects, using the sites of Kahun, Gurob and Amarna to represent the ancient Egyptian lived experience during different periods. The wider themes and objects chosen have also created a wonderful sense of diversity within the gallery, creating a celebration of the different cultures and religions that have been, and continue to be, a part of Egypt. Furthermore this focus on cultural interaction serves to centre ancient Egypt geographically in relation to its neighbours.

Amarna - Living in a Royal City.

Amarna – Living in a Royal City.

Framed by this chronological arrangement the centre of the gallery showcases larger freestanding objects, detailing object stories and interpretations in greater depth. However it is the display and discussion of the mummy and coffin of Asru in this area that is of particular interest. Manchester Museum has a strong historic connection with the study of ancient Egyptian human remains and Dr Price explained how he was keen to reflect this in the new gallery. While the number of human remains on display has decreased, the focus on Asru has allowed the Museum to properly contextualise her display by examining the scientific study of human remains in greater detail.

It was interesting to hear about how much of Asru’s display was introduced as a result of extensive audience research at development stages. The covering of Asru from neck to ankle in ancient fabric, the patterned glass to distinguish cases that contain human remains and the use of soft lighting on a motion sensor all contribute to a more ethically-aware style of display. This approach has been strengthened by the inclusion of an interview with Professor Rosalie David from the Manchester Mummy Research Project explaining more about the life of Asru and the value of scientific investigation. These elements have contributed to a subtle yet powerful and thought-provoking display – a sentiment that is continued in the Fayum Portrait Room, a dark and tranquil side-room that allows you to consider the people behind the ‘mummy masks’.

View of Exploring Objects gallery.

View of Exploring Objects gallery.

Exploring Objects, the third and final gallery in the series, challenges the way we view and interpret collections – situated on the balcony overlooking Egyptian Worlds this space is ideal for thinking beyond the museum display and contemplating the objects below. The gallery provides a new and exciting way of questioning museum and archaeological processes through themed display windows, hands-on activities and digital interactives, using the ancient Egyptian collection to explore museum approaches to conservation, classification and collecting. The most eye-catching displays in this gallery are the mass collections – high density displays of objects organised by type, including jewellery, shabtis and stone vessels. It was great to hear from Dr Price how the mass displays were incorporated by the Museum as a direct result of community responses and the public’s desire to see more of the collection on display.

The Museum has provided some excellent ways of engaging with the collection. In addition to an object handling area and i-pads to access the Museum’s blog content, each gallery features audio-visual points where visitors can watch interviews with leading professionals in the field, allowing visitors to participate in current debates and interpretations. There is also an Ancient Worlds Mobile Experience that enables you to unlock fantastic additional content about the objects on display, including audio commentaries, interactive 3D models and image galleries, using your smartphone and the Museum’s free wifi.

A big thank you to Dr Campbell Price for giving up his time and providing such a brilliant guided tour. Don’t forget you can follow the work of Dr Price on Twitter and through the Egypt at the Manchester Museum blog.

Mass display of shabtis in Exploring Objects gallery.

Mass display of shabtis in Exploring Objects gallery.

The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge, Canterbury.

Ancient Egypt case at the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge.

Ancient Egypt case at the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge.

The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge in Canterbury displays 143 ancient Egyptian artefacts as part of a permanent gallery on Explorers and Collectors. The display includes pottery, beads, amulets, a mummified cat, figurines, furniture fittings, vessels, shabtis, textile fragments, and a canopic jar, ranging in date from Pre-Dynastic to Coptic Egypt. Arranged by object-type, with summary labels for each type-group at the foot of the case, the artefacts are displayed on clear Perspex mounts in a minimalistic, fine-art style. The collection is displayed over three shelves in a dual-aspect case, visible from two different galleries and therefore embedded within two different narratives: Explorers and Collectors and The Study, a cabinet of curiosities inspired display examining the Museum’s founding in 1825.

The Beaney places ancient Egypt within the historic context of Explorers and Collectors alongside an eclectic mix of collections – a self-proclaimed “treasure trove” reminiscent of the Museum’s cabinet of curiosities origin. Displayed alongside 19th and early 20th century collections of British and classical archaeology, ethnography, and natural history, as well as military and missionary souvenirs, the varied collections are linked through the stories of their acquisition and their journey to Canterbury. In light of this, the gallery’s interpretation panels critically reflect upon concepts of imperialism and colonialism within the history of collecting. While this approach is quite subtle and could have been more prominent, their inclusion of interpretation panels such as ‘Heroes and Villains’ is certainly needed to present a more informed and balanced discussion.

The Beaney reflects the story of many local and regional museum collections of ancient Egypt that have grown somewhat organically through a mix of excavated material, private collections and donations, often without detailed archaeological provenance. While Petrie’s excavated finds from Abydos are explored in some detail, object labels within the ancient Egypt case tend to favour the acquisition histories of a select group of objects over more traditional archaeological discussions of site or chronology.

This approach holds more relevance to the Beaney’s art museum concept and stands out as a unique and interesting new perspective in terms of permanent gallery interpretation. By focussing on this aspect of an object’s biography and the human stories behind their acquisition the Beaney creates a stronger connection between the ancient Egyptian collection and the local community, making ancient Egypt more relevant, on a personal level, to the museum’s intended audience. For those wishing to learn more about the objects on display a full list of objects and any known archaeological provenance is provided in an accompanying folder next to the case.

Explorer Points in the gallery - Egyptian and Greek handling collection.

Explorer Points in the gallery – Egyptian and Greek handling collection.

The gallery offers a range of activities at themed ‘Explorer Points’ which allow visitors to interact and engage with the collection through object handling collections, trails, games, arts and crafts. These activities are suitable for all ages, with a particular focus on families.

The Beaney re-opened to the public in September 2012 following a £14 million redevelopment project, part funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Designed as an Art Museum and Library which allows the visitor to “…explore, learn, participate and create…”, the new state-of-the-art gallery spaces reflect a local museum that is keen to explore new concepts and engage with current debate in Museology. This gallery is one of five permanent thematic galleries, including Colour and Camouflage, Materials and Masters and People and Places. There are also temporary exhibition spaces, a library and a Learning Lab.

The 'Explorers and Collectors' gallery.

The ‘Explorers and Collectors’ gallery.