I am beginning to realise that the name of my blog “ancientegyptinlondon” might not have been the best choice, as I seem to spend so much time away from London on the research trail. So it was again the other week when I rose far too early for my liking to catch the 8:30am train from Kings Cross to Newcastle.
The morning of the visit, my husband began speaking to me in a “Geordie Shore” accent to prepare me for the Newcastle experience – the thought of anyone calling me “pet” was a bit horrendous. Having survived the gentle teasing, I headed down the hill to Walthamstow Central Station and the Victoria Line – as it was 7:15 am I was expecting it to be fairly quiet, but the tube was heaving, and I was lucky to find a seat.
It soon became apparent why the tube was packed – Transport for London (TFL) had decided to make my journey a living hell on the one day when I couldn’t be late. TFL regularly make me very angry – in fact, they ruin most of my mornings with their delays, station closures, grumpy staff and over-sensitive tube doors that refuse to close.
Having left myself an hour and fifteen minutes for a journey that normally take less than 20 minutes, imagine my anger as we sat in tunnels for 10 minutes at a time as one “defective” train after another was taken out of service in front of us. The final straw seems to have been a passenger alarm somewhere between Seven Sisters and Finsbury Park, which added more delays. By the time I threw myself through the crowds at Kings Cross Tube at 8:25am I was ready to scream – but I was a bit too blue in the face from all the running and there was no time for a full-on hissy fit on the concourse!
I made the train with 2 minutes to spare and settled down to read numerous articles on Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple at Kom el-Hettan for the 3 hour journey northwards. The sour mood that TFL had produced was quickly replaced with calm and smiles as the sun began to sparkle off the brilliantly green countryside which hurtled past the window – a very yummy bacon sandwich and coffee prepared by the very jolly man in the restaurant car also helped!
I arrived on time in Newcastle and discovered it was a great deal better than I’d imagined. A lovely Victorian railway station and Paris style Metro whisked me to the Great North Museum in just a few minutes. Outside I found elegant buildings constructed of honey coloured stone, pedestrianized shopping avenues and a University buzzing with international students.
The Great North Museum, formerly the Hancock Museum, was built as a natural history museum in 1884. The elegant building evokes a stripped down classicism on the outside. In 2006 the Hancock was merged with various other collections and museums at Newcastle University to create the Great North Museum, and a £26 million refurbishment was undertaken between 2006 and 2009.
Never before have I seen money so well spent in a museum – I’d been warned that it would be full of screaming children, but after a few minutes I too was running around with delight. Not only is this revamped museum a success, it shows just what can be achieved when designers understand both the artefacts that need to displayed and how to make the best use of multi-media tools. The old Victorian taxidermy which must have dominated the building when it was a natural history museum has been re-charged to excellent effect – birds swoop overhead, a giraffe’s head sticks out of the top of a packing case as if inspired by the film Madagascar and the sound of crickets and wolves echo around the museum.
The central space is devoted to an exhibition of Roman artefacts found along Hadrian’s Wall, which snakes through the countryside near Newcastle. You can write your name on a stone in the wall, or read the real-life stories of soldiers who lived in its forts. Interactive displays bring everything to life, and the sounds of nature emanating from the natural history displays next door give you the impression that you are outside walking the wall.
There is plenty of space to walk around the displays, and there are vistas up, down, and through galleries to encourage you to explore further into the museum. Upstairs I found myself immersed in a touch scream programme that allowed you to make your own hoplite shield in the Greece Gallery – pick the border, a symbol and colours, then e-mail it to yourself at home and see your handiwork appear on a wall that is drawn with Greek characters taken straight off the delicate pottery displayed opposite.
Of course I’d come to the Great North Museum with a specific purpose – to see another of the British Museum Sekhmet’s on loan there. I met up with the very delightful Margaret Maitland, @eloquentpeasant on Twitter, a PhD student who is currently undertaking an internship in Newcastle. I’d previously been in contact with her when she was on a similar placement at the British Museum, so she promised to show me round the Great North Museum’s Egyptian displays after a nice lunch in the University cafe.
The Egyptian Galleries turned out to be just as stunningly arranged as the rest of the museum – a sandy colour scheme and images of modern Egypt were juxtaposed next to display cases, to give you a real sense of the connection fo the people of the past with our present.
There were video displays showing a ct scan of a mummy with a person explaining it all in sign language. You could listen to the words of the god Anubis or watch the dangerous path to the Underworld appear beneath your feet in one room (the kids loved that, especially when snakes slithered across the floor underfoot!), and you could build a pyramid out of blocks. These are all interactive activities that you might find in other museums, but here everything had been integrated so well that they worked seamlessly with the artefacts to create a truly incredible visitor experience. I truly felt like a child in a sweet shop, running from display to display.
Of course, I was in Newcastle to work, so I spent a lot of my time looking at this Sekhmet. British Museum statue number EA71 is a gorgeous example. It is worth mentioning that the Great North have displayed it to perfection, with good lighting and have placed it at eye height, which creates an intimate feeling.
A standing statue, she has lost her legs and parts of her arms, but what remains is utterly interesting and artistically stunning. She would once have had a sun disc and uraeus, and there is still a notch in the top of her head where this would have been attached.
The stone is also interesting, the granodiorite being so heavily mottled with brown and pinkish inclusions that it seems almost chocolate in colour at first glance – while many of the Sekhmet statues have pinkish inclusions, they are normally far more black or grey in colour. There are also tiny flecks of silver in the stone, that give it an added sparkle in the right light.
The decorative features of the statue are also impressive, from the finely carved rosettes of the dress over the breasts, to the details on the papyrus sceptre and the deeply carved eyes.
By far the most interesting detail that I noticed however was the rounded, sensual curve of the buttock and thigh on the right side of the statue. I have read recently in an article by Arielle Kozloff that statues made during Amenhotep III’s reign are known for curves, but it also reminded me a little bit of the Amarna period. I haven’t noticed this detail before on other Sekhmet statues, so I will soon find myself taking another look at those statues in storage at the British Museum to see if it is a unique feature of this statue or it was just more noticeable due to the lighting.
This was the last of my trips around the UK to see the British Museum Sekhmets. It was certainly a highlight of the last few months. I would recommend anyone heading north to stop in at Newcastle to see what is certainly one of the most enjoyable museums I have ever ventured into. Bravo to the designers and curators of the Great North Museum for creating an amusing, educational and exciting museum experience. I would also like to thank Margaret Maitland for spending so much time chatting with me about this statue.
In a few hours I’ll be off to Egypt for a two-week tour that will take me from the Cairo Museum to Amarna, Beni Hasan and finally to Luxor at Amenhotep III’s great architectural masterpieces. I look forward to telling you all about it when I return.