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the gap between museum and academic spheres in order to overcome Egyptology’s institutionalisation and sometimes outdated 19th century paradigms.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

Origins of the Afro Comb: 6,000 Years of Culture, Politics and Identity, the Fitzwilliam Museum.

The Fitzwilliam Museum.
Gallery 13 (Mellon) and 8 (Octagon), Free Entry.
2nd July – 3rd November 2013.

The temporary exhibition Origins of the Afro Comb: 6,000 years of Culture, Politics and Identity is displayed across two rooms. The first explores the historical and geographical development of the comb, while the second examines the place of the comb in the African diaspora and its cultural significance today. The exhibition has been curated by Egyptologist and Senior Assistant Keeper in the Department of Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Dr Sally-Ann Ashton, and developed as a result of community responses to the Museum’s ancient Egyptian collection.

As a comparative study of material culture the exhibition presents a typology of hair combs throughout African history. Beginning with an extensive collection from ancient Egypt and Sudan the exhibition invites visitors to trace the development of the comb, in both design and concept, through to 20th century Africa and influences beyond the continent. As such, Origins of the Afro Comb situates ancient Egypt firmly within its African context, presenting a refreshing and thought-provoking narrative that stands out from its contemporaries. Interpretation panels refer to ancient Egypt as Kemet, the ancient Egyptian name for Egypt and a term which Dr Ashton explains has “become associated with placing Egypt in its African cultural context”.

Ancient Egypt and Sudan section.

Ancient Egypt and Sudan section.

The ancient Egypt and Sudan section is arranged in chronological order, displaying examples from Predynastic to Islamic Egypt with corresponding text panels. This simple yet effective style of typology arrangement draws attention to interesting patterns and trends in the archaeological record, such as the gap in evidence from the Old Kingdom and the influence of outside cultures and settlement in design and the width of teeth, indicating changes in hair type or length. As with the rest of the exhibition the Egyptian and Sudanese collections are supported by a range of contextualising objects from each period, such as statuary depicting hairstyles, to help emphasise the human element and social and cultural dynamics of these objects.

To compliment this style of display Afro Comb presents an interesting homage to Sir Flinders Petrie’s own typology of ancient hair combs made in 1927, which remains the only published typology of its kind. Copies of plates from Petrie’s publication, artworks in their own right, form the backdrop to this thematic sub-section that works to historically centre the exhibition and its aims.

World map of combs.

World map of combs.

As ancient and Islamic Egypt feeds into 20th century Africa the objects are allowed to speak for themselves and the visitor can actively engage in interpretation by seeking similarities and differences in the group. The beauty of this exhibition lies in its seamless intertwining of archaeological and anthropological narratives – using one object to access and connect human stories across time and geographical location. This exhibition presents a valuable collaboration between the Fitzwilliam Museum and Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, demonstrating the benefits of working with partner collections, sharing and voicing multi-disciplinary expertise.

The Fitzwilliam Museum has once again led the way with community engagement and outreach, working with a Community Committee in devising the exhibition, and advising on content and display. It is often difficult to reflect shared authorship in display but the exhibition takes steps to show how vital participation is. Visitors are encouraged to take and share photographs of the exhibition, their own combs and hairstyles via Instagram, a space is provided for sharing comments and memories at the end of the exhibition, as well as audio-visual stations to show interviews and archive footage, and allow visitors the opportunity to create alternate labels for objects with their own interpretations. This kind of participation ensures the exhibition remains relevant and relatable, and reflects more accurately the communities it aims to represent.

The importance of this relationship can be seen just within the entrance of the exhibition where the focus rests on a single pedestal display case showing an animal bone comb from Abydos (c.3500 BCE) alongside a 20th century example in plastic. The direct comparison made between these two combs and the use of cultural motifs on the handles led directly to the development of the exhibition and so beautifully sets the scene for a stunning and sophisticated exhibition that explores the depths of our relationship and fascination with everyday objects.