Brussels, Stones and British Museum Storerooms

I work for the Heritage of London Trust, as small charity that helps community groups restore their historic and listed buildings and monuments. Usually my work is based firmly in the capital. But last month I was sent to Brussels to visit the European Parliament. It was another early start on the 8:30am Eurostar, but as it was a “day out” I wasn’t going to complain. In Brussels I met up with one of my Heritage of London Trust trustees, Ronnie Barden, and his friend Irving Mitchell for lunch before we headed over to parliament offices to look at a potential exhibition space. Syed Kamall, one of London’s MEPs, had booked a space for May 2012 to showcase the “Best of London” in the run-up to the Olympics.

The exhibtion space at the European Parliament, Brussels. Own photo.

Having seen the exhibition space and discussed our various options for the spring event, Ronnie, Irving and I headed off for an afternoon of museum visits before I headed back to London. It’s always nice when you have a local person to show you around a city you haven’t visited before. Irving, a native of Hackney, had been living in Brussels for decades, and knew exactly where to take me – the Cinquantenaire Museum with its Egyptological collection. We wandered around for an hour before closing, and of course the first thing that caught my eye was yet another Sekhmet statue – I’m beginning to wonder if every museum in the world does really have one?

Standing Statue of Sekhmet. Cinquantenaire Museum, Brussels. Own photo.

However, there were many interesting objects, from workman’s tools and painted mummy cases to a reproduction of a tomb from Thebes (TT 151 ; Tomb of Nakht), apparently based on drawings made by Hay.

Virtual tomb from Thebes. Cinquantenaire Museum, Brussels. Own photo.

After our visit, Irving and his lovely wife Eva took me to their home for tea and cakes and I made a wonderful discovery – Eva is a sculptor and she took me to her basement workroom to try out cutting various types of stone. The white Carrara marble favoured by Michelangelo is relatively easy to cut, but you need a very gentle touch with the chisel or it shatters. Granite on the other hand is extremely difficult to even dent unless you use a great deal of force – I tried with all my strength to bang the mallet and steel chisel on a piece of granite and all I achieve was a small scratch. This of course makes me wonder how on earth the ancient Egyptians produced so many statues with such simple tools – they certainly didn’t have electronic drills or steel chisels to work with (unless you believe the UFO enthusiasts that is!). With each new moment of clarity in my research I find just more questions to be answered…

Irving Mitchell and Ronnie Barden in front of the Cinquantenaire Museum, Brussels. Own photo.

A few weeks after my lovely trip to Brussels, the Egyptology MA students of Birkbeck had our monthly visit to the Ancient Egypt and Sudan Department at the British Museum. I was reminded once again that despite the trials and tribulations of the research and course work, this MA is turning out to be very rewarding. Not only have I had the opportunity to meet some very wonderful new people with similar interests, whom I will hopefully call friends for many years to come, but together we sometimes get to have wonderful little adventures in the Aladdin’s cave of the British Museum’s storerooms. Despite its size the museum can only display a small fraction of its collections, and while the museum has an excellent loan policy with Britain’s regional museums (more about that in my next blog), there are still large numbers of objects that cannot be displayed regularly.

Tara and Malcolm discuss two of Nina's paintings at the British Museum. Photo by Clare Lewis, courtesy of Malcolm Wright. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.

On this occasion, we were in search of the stunning work of Nina de Garis Davies (1881-1965). Along with her husband Norman she worked in Egypt in the first decades of the 20th century before World War II making accurate copies of tomb paintings for various clients, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Almost 50 years after her death, the paintings she and Norman produced are still highly relevant for their accuracy and details such as colours and notations on damage. While these have been widely published, both by the Davies’ in their own lifetimes and in numerous publications since, the originals owned by the British Museum are often kept in store to protect them from over-exposure to light.

Looking at the Nina de Garis Davies Paintings in the British Museum Storerooms. Photo by Malcolm Wright. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.

I must admit that I for one, and my colleagues, get a bit giddy and excited when we are let loose in the storerooms. It’s a bit like a candy store for me, I want to savour all the sweets and chocolates. We had been arranged in groups to give little presentations on specific paintings, and my colleague Malcolm came up with a very interesting plan that we should discuss our paintings as if we were Nina and Norman – not only fun but useful to try to imagine how they felt about their work! Since so many of the tombs they worked in have suffered damage or degradation of the painted surface, their work is still highly valuable as it sometimes offers the only evidence of colour and imagery now lost to ravages of time.

Seeing the de Garis Davies paintings up close, as well as rows of ancient painted coffins and trays of delicate objects hidden away from prying eyes and the destructive forces of sunlight in a temperature controlled environment, I always feel very privileged and lucky to have had the experience. I just feel sad that for obvious reasons of space, conservation and cost, more objects cannot be on display more of the time.

The Birkbeck Egyptology MA group in the British Museum Storerooms. Photo by Malcolm Wright. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.

While the objects in store (and Nina’s paintings) are not on regular view, they are seen and studied almost daily by Egyptologists and scholars for whom they are a vital tool in their search for an understanding of the Ancient Egyptians. So even when they are hidden away in a crate in the basements of the museum, the ancient treasures still hold power to fascinate us and to illuminate the past. And maybe just a little bit of magic as well.

Sincerest thanks to the British Museum and the staff of the Ancient Egypt and Sudan Department for giving us so much support with our studies.


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