Sometimes it’s good to get out of London. We Londoners sometimes like to believe we live in the centre of the cultural universe, and that outside London is sort of like going north of the wall in Game of Thrones. Of course, we know that’s not the case, and once you get past the northern boundary of the M25 you soon discover that Britain is a treasure trove of historic towns, stunning landscapes, country houses and wonderful museums.
Almost every decent sized town in Britain has a museum, and some of them truly are full to bursting with everything from Old Master paintings to archaeological wonders. And Egyptology looms quite large in many regional museums, mainly thanks to the efforts of wealthy Victorian collectors and tourists, as well as the Egypt Exploration Fund. Take a look inside the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery for example. Founded in 1885 and housed in a fine neo-classical building, it has a great deal to offer the visitor, from Pre-Raphaelite paintings to the Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire Hoard. Best of all it has a very good collection of Egyptian objects.
While the Egyptology collection on display in Birmingham is relatively small, it is well laid out and easy to understand, the objects arranged by theme, with topics such as “life at work” and “life at home” giving context to everyday objects once used by the ancient Egyptians.
Of course there is also a display of animal and human mummies, which always seem to fascinate and draw visitors, and fun things to do like masks to try on or an ancient senet board for children to play with. Similar, though more elaborate interactive displays can also be found in Newcastle at the Great North Museum, where children can seemingly walk through the Underworld via the impressive video displays.
In Manchester and Liverpool there are also stunning collections, including the odd Sekhmet statue – two Sekhmets in Liverpool managed to survive bombing in World War II. Liverpool has recently re-opened their Egyptian galleries after an impressive £800,000 refurbishment and re-interpretation of their collections and it will prove to offer a great day out for the family during the Christmas holiday season.
Closer to London, Cambridge and Oxford also hold wondrous treasures for the Egyptology enthusiast. At the Fitzwilliam Museum you can view a colossal sarcophagus lid from the tomb of Ramesses III, brought back from Egypt by the great Giovanni Belzoni and acquired by the museum in 1823.
There are also mummies of course, but it is the smaller items that truly are worth a trip, like a beautifully painted shabti from the tomb of Sennedjem, one of the workmen in the royal tombs during the New Kingdom. It was found at Deir el-Medina in Luxor, the ancient site of the workmen’s village.
The museum has other objects thought to come from Deir el-Medina, including a wonderful collection of stone ostraca with sketched scenes and drawings, donated to the museum by the famous collector R.G. Gayer-Anderson. My personal favourite among this group is a little ostraca with a very loose but vibrant sketch in red paint of a cat, which is also dated to the New Kingdom.
At the Ashmolean in Oxford, the royal princesses of Amarna, sisters of the famous King Tutankhamun, seem to jump out at you from the colourful remains of a wall fresco from their father Akhenaten’s royal palace. The girls sit on bright cushions near their parents and one girl cups her sister’s chin in her hand, an intimate gesture far removed from the regimented scenes found on temple walls.
It is these sometimes smaller, more intimate remnants of the ancient past, which we can link with real people or an interesting historical moment, that bring ancient Egypt vividly to life. The stories of these objects will enthral and fascinate children and adults of all ages.
What I find so interesting about these museums are that their collections also have much to tell about the towns in which they were built. Many of the collections in these regional museums, both Egyptological and otherwise, are examples of the interests and passions of local people who saw supporting the arts in their local community as both enjoyable and essential to making their towns and cities better places for everyone to live in. We tend to forget that these regional museums were very often supported and built up through the efforts of the local populace, whether that be wealthy industrialists wanting to leave something to posterity, or the burgeoning middle classes in growing towns who saw it as their civic duty to support culture and the arts. Regional museums are truly the fruit of community efforts and interests over many decades, and this is something we should all remember and continue to celebrate wherever we live.
In this age of budget cuts and austerity these “local” museums need their community’s support more than ever – without the enthusiasm and interest of local people many regional museums will struggle. So with that in mind, this Christmas, when you are finding it hard to find the perfect gift for someone, why not think about a museum membership, or take a look around your local museum shop for gift ideas – the money you spend helps to keep the doors of these wonderful regional treasure houses open for everyone to enjoy.
And when everyone is stuffed to bursting with turkey and mince pies, you’ve watched all the Christmas tv specials and need something to amuse the children over the extended Christmas break, then head down to your local museum – you, and all the family will be amazed at what you find. And if Egyptology is not everyone’s cup of tea, your local museum will almost certainly have something else to catch the attention, from medieval armour to dinosaur bones. So show your civic pride and uncover the wonders of your local museum. You will not be disappointed.
Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!
by Tara Draper-Stumm
** please check your local museum website for opening times. Most museums in the UK are closed Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, but are usually open all other days between Christmas and New Year.