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the gap between museum and academic spheres in order to overcome Egyptology’s institutionalisation and sometimes outdated 19th century paradigms.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

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.

EGYPT AWAKENED
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.

STONES AND SYMBOLISM: ANALYSING VALUES IN EGYPTIAN ROCKS
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 https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/stones-and-symbolism-analysing-values-in-egyptian-rocks-tickets-9314450773

TAXONOMIES OF BONES AND POTS
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.

REVELATIONS
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.

DEFINING DESIRE: LABELS AND SEX
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 https://definingdesire.eventbrite.co.uk

EGYPT IN LONDON: MODERNIST SCULPTURE WALK
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 https://modernistsculpturewalk.eventbrite.co.uk

SUBTEXT OR MAIN TEXT? SAME SEX RELATIONSHIPS IN XENA AND SPARTACUS
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 https://xenaspartacus.eventbrite.co.uk