Cairo to Constantinople, The Queen’s Gallery.

The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace
7th November 2014 – 22nd February 2015
Tickets: £0.00 – £9.75
#royaltour1862

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.

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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.

Exhibitions on Egypt 2014: What to see this year.

Happy New Year! 2013 saw some excellent exhibitions on Egypt across the United Kingdom and, with a fair few announced already, this year promises to be just as exciting. Here is a selection of temporary exhibitions to look out for in 2014.

A Fusion of Worlds: Ancient Egypt, African Art and Identity in Modernist Britain.
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London.
11th March – 24th May 2014.

This exhibition considers the influence of ancient Egypt and African art upon the work of modernist artists, including Jacob Epstein, Edna Manley and Ronald Moody, and explores the wider socio-political and cultural contexts in which their art is situated.

A Fusion of Worlds looks set to continue the Petrie Museum’s tradition of thought-provoking, cross-disciplinary exhibitions, with a focus on community involvement. Co-curated by Gemma Romain (UCL Geography) and Debbie Challis (UCL Museums and Collections), in partnership with a group of community participants, this exhibition will provide new insights into the reception of ancient Egypt as well as some interesting accompanying events, including a gallery talk with artist Edna Manley (15th March) and a ‘Meet the Curators’ talk (8th April).

Discovering Tutankhamun.

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
24th July – 26th October 2014.
#DiscoverTut

The Ashmolean’s much-anticipated summer exhibition will tell the story behind the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb through a mix of archival and archaeological material, covering the search for the tomb, its excavation, documentation and reception.

Planned to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Oxford’s Griffith Institute of Egyptology, Discovering Tutankhamun will feature Howard Carter’s original records and photographs from the archive. According to the Griffith Institute’s blog this will be the first time they have been “presented as a whole to the public.” This exciting collaboration should provide a unique perspective on this iconic story in what will undoubtedly be a very popular exhibition.

Advanced booking now available.

Ancient Lives: New Encounters with Egypt and Sudan (title tbc).
British Museum, London.
22nd May – 30th November 2014.

Following the success of the British Museum’s recent interactive exhibit on Gebelein Man (November 2012 – March 2013), this exhibition will take a closer look at physical anthropology, highlighting the role of new technologies and scientific analysis in exploring the ancient lived experience.

This exhibition plans to tell the story of eight people who lived in ancient Egypt and Sudan between 3500BC and 1500AD, interpreting their life, death and mummification through a combination of archaeological artefacts, interactive exhibits and digital media. There is still very little information about this exhibition, and the title and dates may be subject to change, so don’t forget to keep an eye on their website in the next few months for further details.

Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East.
The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London.
31st October 2014 – 22nd February 2015.

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, it promises to provide a fascinating insight into Victorian Britain’s relationship with the region and place Egypt firmly within its Middle Eastern context. The exhibition also has some excellent online content featuring a selection of photographs, documents and stories from the archive.

Advanced booking now available.

Re-Imagining Egypt, Saffron Walden Museum.

Saffron Walden Museum.
16th November – 23rd February 2014.

View of 'Re-Imagining Egypt' exhibition.

View of ‘Re-Imagining Egypt’ exhibition.

The temporary exhibition Re-Imagining Egypt begins with a direct question – “What does Egypt conjure up in your imagination?” This exhibition is designed to challenge preconceptions and traditional Western representations of Egypt by exploring daily life, identity, cultural and religious influences from 300,000 years of Egyptian history. Drawing upon the Museum’s impressive permanent collection, contemporary art, and community responses this exhibition provides an important and diverse range of perspectives in its interpretation.

Artwork by Khaled Hafez.

Artwork by Khaled Hafez.

Re-Imagining Egypt is arranged thematically, taking subjects from daily life such as textiles, beauty, protective charms, and pottery to explore similar objects dating from Predynastic to 21st century Egypt. The objects have been selected to represent the lives of ordinary Egyptians, with all pieces made by a singular artist or craftsperson. The exhibition provides a unique opportunity to directly compare objects from across the breadth of Egyptian history, highlighting the similarities and continuity of the themes they represent and uniting the human story and Egyptian lived experience across different cultures and religions.

To bridge the gap between the past and the present Re-Imagining Egypt displays artistic responses alongside its artefacts. Egyptian contemporary artist and artist-in-residence Khaled Hafez created new works inspired by the Museum’s collection and worked with school children from the local community to create group artworks, also incorporated into the exhibition.

A selection of oil lamps on display.

A selection of oil lamps on display.

In addition to this the exhibition space is shared by quotes from the wider Egyptian community. These phrases, taken from exhibition curator Gemma Tully’s PhD research into Egyptian perceptions of identity and history, serves to centre the exhibition and the objects on display. Displaying new artworks and quotes side-by-side with the objects and history that inspired them adds new and dynamic layers of interpretation to existing object stories. The effect of this is a unique multi-vocality and a sense of shared authorship that challenges the traditional authority of the museum voice and encourages visitors to see things differently.

This multi-layered approach to interpretation mirrors Hafez’s own views on the layers of Egyptian history and the complexity of Egyptian identity, which he describes as “cumulative, interwoven and intertwined.” It was particularly interesting to hear Hafez’s thoughts on how different cultures and nationalities have left codes running through Egyptian art, adopted and reproduced over time – an influence evident in his own work displayed in the exhibition. Khaled Hafez has created four artworks for display – Saffron Angels I and II, and Drawing Saffron by the Day I and II – within which he builds upon Egypt’s historic practice of “painting with narrative.”

A collection of shabtis: ancient and modern.

A collection of shabtis: ancient and modern.

Gemma Tully, Visitor Services and Learning Officer and curator of Re-Imagining Egypt, explained how community archaeology lay at the heart of this exhibition, reflecting current approaches and research in heritage interpretation. This exhibition stands out as particularly unique for its approach of bringing together and voicing different community groups that have a shared interest in the collection. Leading up to the exhibition Saffron Walden Museum hosted six sessions with local school groups that have demonstrated the value of object-centred learning. Arranged chronologically, and culminating in the Egyptian revolution, the sessions studied different periods of Egyptian history incorporating relevant objects from the Museum’s handling collection.

Re-Imagining Egypt is a collaborative exhibition that explores new and creative partnerships, and succeeds in uniting art and artefact, ancient and modern, East and West. It stands as an inspiring and engaging exhibition that brings an important international and cross-cultural persepctive to a local collection.

I would like to thank Saffron Walden Museum and the Egypt Exploration Society for organising an exclusive view of the exhibition, as well as curator Gemma Tully and artist-in-residence Khaled Hafez for fascinating talks on their exhibition experiences.

View of 'Re-Imagining Egypt' exhibition.

View of ‘Re-Imagining Egypt’ exhibition.

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.

Pharaoh: Reborn, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
Upper Second Floor, Free Entry.
20th April – 29th September 2013.

The temporary exhibition Pharaoh: Reborn showcases spectacular watercolours copied from the tomb of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings (KV17). Painted at the time of the tomb’s discovery by Giovanni Belzoni’s expedition team, between 1817 and 1820, the watercolours provide an important record of the tomb’s extensive decoration, which has since suffered severe damage. The exhibition displays 30 examples from the series of 300, acquired by the museum in the year 1900, alongside a small selection of objects to provide context in the discussion of tomb building and decoration during the reign of Seti I. All pieces are from the museum’s permanent collection.

The exhibition focuses on the subject of the watercolours, using them as an example to demonstrate the Pharaoh’s journey through the Afterlife, to explain ancient Egyptian beliefs and the role and function of tomb decoration. Presented in a linear narrative with a didactic interpretation style, the visitor is guided through the journey scene-by-scene with each watercolour accompanied by a label describing the content and introducing key mythological figures. While there is no set visitor route around the exhibition both paths lead to a short animated film at the far end of the gallery that brings the Mysterious Cavern of Sokaris to life.

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In a move away from the more traditional archaeological display Pharaoh: Reborn adopts more of a fine-art aesthetic, suited to its art gallery surroundings on the museum’s second floor. In an architecturally neutral space, light and minimalistic in its design, the watercolours speak for themselves and the colours appear even more vibrant. This approach has ensured that the watercolours remain the focus. While this can often have a de-contextualising effect it does encourage you to view the watercolours in far greater detail and appreciate their value not just as archaeological records but as works of art in their own right.

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Although the history of the watercolour collection has been provided elsewhere by Bristol Museum (found here and here), it is a shame that the exhibition does not explore their object biographies in detail. From their connection to the great eccentric character Giovanni Belzoni and the tales of his expedition, to their famous display in Piccadilly’s Egyptian Hall, their life-cycle adds an extra dimension to their historical and cultural significance. It is also a little disappointing that the exhibition does not fully acknowledge the young draughtsmen and physician, Alessandro Ricci, as the artist.

However, the rationale behind Pharaoh: Reborn was not to comment upon the history of Egyptian archaeology but to accompany the recent touring exhibition Pharaoh: King of Egypt. By re-establishing Seti I as the protagonist of this collection the exhibition formed a valuable and informative counterpart, supporting its aims to “explore the myths and realities of kingship in ancient Egypt”.

The light-sensitive nature of these watercolours means they are very rarely on display and cannot be displayed for any considerable length of time. It was therefore a privilege to be able to see them in person and be close enough to see every brush stroke, blemish and hand-written note. Looking at these watercolours you can truly feel a sense of their history, both in terms of their contribution to early Egyptology and their connection to a Pharaoh’s life story and the masterpiece he commissioned.

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