Statement on the Loss of Antiquities from Public Collections.

The Egypt Exploration Society and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology have released a joint statement on ‘The Loss of Antiquities from Public Collections’. The statement condemns the forthcoming sale of objects excavated by Flinders Petrie at Harageh, Egypt, in 1914, which were distributed very deliberately to a “public collection”.

The statement, co-written by Dr Alice Stevenson and Dr Chris Naunton, relates to the intended sale of Egyptian antiquities by the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) St. Louis Society. The sale is due to take place at Bonhams, in London, this Thursday 2nd October 2014.

The statement can be found on the Egypt Exploration Society’s website, here, and is also available to download as a pdf, here.

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A Fusion of Worlds, the Petrie Museum.

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.
11th March – 24th May 2014.
Free Entry.

A Fusion of Worlds.

A Fusion of Worlds.

The temporary exhibition A Fusion of Worlds: Ancient Egypt, African Art and Identity in Modernist Britain explores the influence of ancient Egypt upon the work of artists Mahmoud Mukhtar, Jacob Epstein, Edna Manley and Ronald Moody, proving that there is far more to the reception of ancient Egypt in early twentieth century Britain than the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Focussing primarily on the interwar period, this multi-disciplinary exhibition explores the parallel worlds of the modernist art movement, contemporary archaeological thinking and the African diaspora, drawing upon the social, cultural and political landscape in which they were situated and the ancient Egyptian objects that linked them.

An interpretation panel from A Fusion of Worlds.

An interpretation panel from A Fusion of Worlds.

A Fusion of Worlds was inspired by the discovery of a letter from Flinders Petrie, published in the Manchester Guardian in 1929, in which he criticised the ‘primitive barbarism’ of a public sculpture by Jacob Epstein. From this initial discussion of Petrie’s views on the use of sculpture as a marker of civilisation and cultural achievement the exhibition introduces you to the vibrant world of the African-American Harlem Renaissance art movement in which ancient Egypt, alongside other cultural influences, was used to “re-create and re-frame modern black identities.” The exhibition incorporates a diverse range of themes, from the changing view of the ancient Egyptian object from artefact to artwork and the increasingly political nature of the ancient Egyptian image in popular culture, to the philosophical perspectives shared by the ancient and modern sculptor.

The exhibition consists of a series of interpretation panels positioned along the back wall of the main gallery, each exploring different exhibition themes and artist biographies, and a display case featuring a selection of archival material. This presentation style has allowed the Museum to display a greater depth of research than most other exhibitions and presents a level of detail that would make an excellent publication. In this shared space, interspersed amongst the cases in the gallery, the exhibition is contextualised by the permanent collection that surrounds it, allowing you to view and interpret the Museum’s objects from a new and exciting perspective.

Scrapbook style pin board showing images that inspired the exhibition.

Scrapbook style pin board showing images that inspired the exhibition.

This exhibition, co-curated by Debbie Challis (Petrie Museum) and Gemma Romain (UCL Geography, Equiano Centre), stands as another great example of inclusive exhibition practice from the Petrie Museum. Through public engagement workshops the Museum established a project team who were invited to contribute both ideas and text to the exhibition. Many of the interpretation panels include text written by members of the project team, describing visits to archives and museum collections, as well as their personal research and thoughts on particular artworks.

This approach has added an important sense of multi-vocality to the exhibition and it certainly feels richer for their input. I particularly enjoyed an interpretation panel entitled Form and Function: Petrie Museum Objects in which members of the project team picked out objects from the collection that appealed to them aesthetically and explored their similarities in style to the modernist art movement.

There are some brilliant additions to A Fusion of Worlds that allow you to actively engage with the exhibition and participate in some of the research behind its content. Scrapbook-style pin boards display some of the images and artworks explored by the project group and the presence of a comments board encourages visitors to share their thoughts and feedback with the Museum. There is also a table of books and a reading file of articles and newspaper cuttings linked to the exhibition for visitors to look through, and a short film, played on two tablets in the Museum, showing interviews with the curators and members of the project team about their experiences of working on the exhibition.

A view of the Petrie Museum and A Fusion of Worlds exhibition.

A view of the Petrie Museum and A Fusion of Worlds exhibition.

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.

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.