Exhibitions on Egypt 2015: What to see this year.

Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East
The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace
7th November 2014 – 22nd February 2015
Tickets: £0.00 – £9.75

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, Cairo to Constantinople provides a fascinating insight into Victorian Britain’s relationship with the region and archaeology as an emerging discipline. The exhibition also has some excellent online content featuring a selection of photographs, documents and stories from the archive.

Ancient Lives: New Discoveries
The British Museum
22nd May 2014 – 19th April 2015
Tickets: £0.00 – £10.00

This exhibition tells the story of eight people from the ancient Nile Valley, covering 4,000 years from Prehistoric Egypt to Christian Sudan. Using the human remains as a starting point Ancient Lives introduces new technology and interactive displays to explore how these people lived and died. The ancient lived experience is at the heart of this exhibition and Ancient Lives presents a ground-breaking and sensitive approach to the study of human remains.

Ancient Lives: New Discoveries has proved extremely popular with British Museum visitors. Last year it received an unprecedented six month extension, taking it through to April 2015, and it is still very much in demand. If you get a chance check out the accompanying book, it’s a great addition to the exhibition.

Secret Egypt: Unravelling Truth from Mystery
Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery
24th January – 26th April 2015
Tickets: £0.00 – £4.00

Secret Egypt aims to challenge modern myths and misconceptions surrounding ancient Egypt by exploring subjects like the mummy’s curse, and answering questions such as ‘were the ancient Egyptians obsessed with death?’. This exhibition provides an interesting and eclectic mix of Egyptian archaeology and modern Egyptomania, and includes a diverse collection of 150 ancient Egyptian artefacts ranging from jewellery and ceramics to statuary and coffins.

The Secret Egypt exhibition, which has been touring UK museums since 2011, has been produced by Birmingham Museums Trust in partnership with the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum and is supported by Arts Council England. To find out more about UK tour dates and to download the Herbert Touring pack visit the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum website.

Ancient Egypt Lives Forever
Museum of St. Albans
24th January – 17th May 2015
Free entry

This exhibition offers an insight into the daily lives and funerary practices of the ancient Egyptians, covering a wide range of themes from home-life, work-life, religion and recreation. Ancient Egypt Lives Forever includes a selection of artefacts on loan from collections across the UK, such as Manchester, Liverpool, Brighton, Hertford, Ipswich and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. With an extensive programme of talks for adults and activity-led sessions for children this exhibition has something for visitors of all ages.

Egypt Explored
The Egypt Exploration Society
12th – 26th July 2015
Free entry

Founded in 1882 the Egypt Exploration Society in London houses one of the largest and most significant Egyptian archaeological archive collections in the UK. Egypt Explored will provide a unique opportunity to learn more about the history of the Society and its work in Egypt through the exploration of this world renowned collection. Find out more about the archaeologists behind the discoveries and experience what life was like on excavation when the Society opens its doors to the public in July this year.

Egypt Explored, and accompanying events, is organised as part of the UK-wide Festival of Archaeology which takes place between 11th and 26th July 2015. Further details will be announced nearer the time, so keep an eye on the Egypt Exploration Society website.

Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt
Manchester Museum
September 2015 – March 2016
Free entry

This much anticipated exhibition will tell the story of ancient Egypt’s mummified animals, placing this particular votive offering practice within its social, cultural and religious context. According to the Museum’s press release, Gifts for the Gods will also provide a more recent historical perspective by looking at the history of their excavation, collection and interpretation. This exhibition will present an exciting collaboration between Manchester Museum and the Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank Project that will explore the scientific study of these specimens.

There is not very much information out about this exhibition yet so keep checking the Museum’s website for further details. I would also recommend following the Egypt at the Manchester Museum and Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank blogs for possible exhibition updates and behind-the-scenes posts.

Do you know of any other exhibitions on Egypt happening in the UK this year? If so, I would love to hear about them! You can either reply to this post or send me an email at museumegyptology {at} gmail {dot} com.


Encountering Corpses, part 2.

Following talks by Dr Bryan Sitch and Dr Campbell Price (see part 1) the conference provided curator-led tours of the Ancient Worlds galleries and an opportunity for the delegates to feed back on their experience of viewing human remains within a museum context. This group discussion generated a wide-range of questions and responses, demonstrating the complexity and necessity of such an open debate.

Curator Dr Campbell Price leads a group of delegates on a gallery tour.

Curator Dr Campbell Price leads a group of delegates on a gallery tour.

Much of this discussion focused on the ethics of display and the ways in which museums try to re-humanise human remains, taking into consideration the objectifying effect of the museum display case and the difficult subject-object duality of the material dead. Approaches such as referring to the deceased by name, wherever possible, and using ‘he’ or ‘she’ in interpretation were highlighted as a means of showing respect and sensitivity to the deceased. Visual interpretive methods such as facial reconstructions were also discussed, although it was felt that these methods can be distracting and/or misleading in some contexts. All agreed that context is key when it comes to display – providing a rich socio-cultural and/or scientific context allows a greater understanding of the person.

Dr Price explained how many of these approaches had been incorporated into the Ancient Worlds gallery which opened in 2012. The display of human remains within this gallery had been based upon a series of experimental phases of display, which included different ways of covering the body, this approach generated discussion amongst museum visitors and professionals, and enabled audience consultation for the re-display. As a result, Asru, an Egyptian woman from the 25th-26th dynasty whose preserved body is on display in the gallery, is covered from collar to ankle with ancient linen and has been re-situated within her coffin. As she is displayed beneath visitor’s eye-level, with the coffin lid hovering over her body, visitors are able to choose whether or not to view the human remains, and soft, motion sensor lights ensure her display is subtle. Scientific context has also been built with interviews and research from the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology.

Asru in the Ancient Worlds gallery.

Asru in the Ancient Worlds gallery.

It was felt that there is an overall lack of consensus on how to display human remains and that matters of display and reception are very much dependant on the type of museum and collection. The example of medical museums was presented in which human remains tend to be considered more as specimens than people and the group questioned whether this was a consequence of encountering a fragment rather than the whole. Similarly, the group considered the factor of time and its impact upon reception. For example, there seems to be a difference in how we view the long dead in comparison to the recently dead which feeds into our museum experience – ancient remains often feel more distant from us and therefore seem less likely to evoke an emotional response and more likely to generate curiosity.

What I found particularly fascinating in this discussion was the strong local connection that many felt for the Egyptian mummies. Many delegates recounted stories of visiting them in their childhood, referring to them as ‘old friends’ and describing the sense of loss they felt when some were taken off of display to allow for a greater material culture context in the new Ancient Worlds gallery. It would be fascinating to investigate this, and other similar localised relationships, further and find out how unique this heightened attachment is to ancient Egyptian collections and the specific values we assign them.

Above all Encountering Corpses demonstrated the importance of discussing the display and reception of human remains within an inter-disciplinary context. The way we view and understand human remains in a museum setting is informed by our prior-knowledge and experiences and has, therefore, always been framed by the many different social, cultural, medical and artistic encounters we have experienced both individually and within our cultural memory. The fact that this conference sold out six months in advance is testament to its current relevance across the humanities and social sciences. Hopefully such collaborations will lead to a more inclusive, balanced and ethical approach, not just to matters of display and reception but to wider issues relating to the care, management, conservation, research and storage of human remains within museums.

Encountering Corpses, part 1.

A few weeks ago I attended Encountering Corpses at Manchester Museum – a conference organised as part of Manchester Metropolitan University’s ‘Humanities in Public’ programme. The conference reflected upon some of the many contexts in which we encounter the dead, from archaeological excavations and dark tourism to representations in art, politics and the media. While historically we have often thought of human remains as passive and neutral, stripped of agency and identity, this debate encouraged us to re-consider the agency, materiality and mobility of human remains as well as the ethics that surround different encounters.

Encountering Corpses conference at Manchester Museum.

Encountering Corpses conference at Manchester Museum.

The conference included a series of talks on human remains in a museum context, and, as speaker and Curator Dr Campbell Price explained, Manchester Museum is certainly well placed to host such a discussion. The Museum is considered by many to have started the inter-disciplinary study of human remains with some of the earliest scientific mummy un-wrappings conducted by Egyptologist and Archaeologist Margaret Murray in 1907. Since then the Museum and Manchester University has been at the centre of scientific investigations into ancient Egyptian human remains with the Manchester Mummy Project, the Ancient Mummy Tissue Bank and the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology. It is a connection that seems to have always fed into the display of ancient Egypt at the Museum.

Dr Bryan Sitch, Curator of Archaeology at Manchester Museum, presented a talk on the display of human remains in the Museum’s recent Lindow Man exhibition (2008-9). This talk highlighted the role of public consultations as an approach to making museum displays more transparent, inclusive and accountable. Public consultations for Lindow Man revealed that visitors wanted “the body to be treated respectfully and for [the Museum] to reflect different interpretations.” These responses were incorporated into the display with a wide range of people interviewed from forensic archaeologists to pagan community group members. However, this multi-vocal interpretive style received mixed reviews from the visiting public with people questioning the authority of the voices represented.

The exhibition also provided an opportunity for visitors to answer the question ‘Do you think it is right to display human remains?’ – over 12,500 comments were received with 67% of visitors saying that museums should display human remains. It was interesting to hear that these consultations had a wider impact within the Museum beyond the Lindow Man exhibition, contributing to the re-display of ancient Egyptian mummies in the new Ancient Worlds gallery.

A visitor examines the preserved body of Asru in the Ancient Worlds gallery.

A visitor examines the preserved body of Asru in the Ancient Worlds gallery.

Dr Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum, spoke about how displays of ancient Egypt have always provided a unique encounter with human remains – one that certainly seems very different from any other within the museum setting. This talk examined how those responsible for the display and interpretation of Egyptian mummies have the difficult challenge of managing visitor’s pre-conceptions, high expectations and a fair amount of skepticism.

The preservation bias in the Egyptian archaeological record has resulted in museum narratives that focus predominantly on death and the afterlife. For Dr Price, who has recently curated the re-development of the Ancient Worlds gallery (2012) including the re-display of human remains, this historic portrayal of ancient Egyptians as a culture obsessed with death, coupled with our familiarity with mummies in the popular imagination, has made it difficult to bring new perspectives to their display and interpretation. This talk examined how the fictionalisation of Egyptian mummies has resulted in their “hyper-real” status, leading many visitors to question the authenticity of the human remains on display. Historically this has not been helped by the nineteenth century practice of creating mock-contexts and mock-biographies for mummies on display.

While it is often felt that the preservation bias in favour of funerary archaeology can dominate the museum space physically, Dr Price was also keen to highlight the unique value and potential of this evidence in guiding how we present and interpret human remains to a museum audience. This wealth of textual and archaeological evidence allows us to understand ancient Egyptian beliefs, as well as their expectations and intentions for their own human remains that could help to inform museum practice. Furthermore it can provide significant interpretive information to help visitors understand more about the person rather than the ‘mummy’.

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.