History of Archaeology
By Heba Abd el Gawad (co-curator, Beyond Beauty)
Little can go wrong with an exhibition on ancient Egypt. The public fascination with the culture-especially within the UK- is a definite guarantee of beyond decent visitor numbers. Yet how can you convince the public that there is more to ancient Egypt than the Rosetta Stone, Pharaohs, pyramids, mummies and Howard Carter? The team behind Beyond Beauty, the fifth installment of Two Temple Place Winter Exhibition series, accepted the challenge.
The exhibition honestly attempted to display the ancient Egyptians but (to quote the then paper Independent) “not as you know them”. It brought together for the first time from Bagshaw, Bexhill, Bolton, Brighton, Ipswich, Macclesfield, Rochdale museums ancient Egyptian objects layered with perceptions and presentations of body and appearance. In doing so the exhibition revealed the ordinary ancient Egyptians and also the complexities of balancing scholarly and public use of ancient Egypt and how the 'academia v the public' debate is heated up within museums. It proposed musketeers, curvy ladies, and Victorian crowd-funders as mediators between ancient and modern Egypt, the public, and Egyptology within any walled space. A video by Johnny Birkbeck showcases the process of setting up the display.
Over the past few years history of museum collections has taken centre stage, yet it is confined within a scholarly framework fulfilling disciplinary needs. Rarely do museum panels attempt to explain to visitors how these objects ended up being in the museum, what an unknown provenance means and what implications and responsibilities this 'unknown' might force on museums.
To take the public through the journey between the field and the museum, Beyond Beauty had as its central theme the stories of the British Victorian pioneer archaeologists who were the “musketeers” behind the UK´s impressive ancient Egyptian collections. It narrated the stories of their time in Egypt and their efforts to create various publicly accessible museums dispersed around the UK, making collections available for research and education.
Local stories behind the formation of each collection are important chapters of social British history which can help strengthen the ties between the collections, the museums, and modern British identity, a much needed link within the current funding crisis facing local museums. During the exhibition, it was announced that one of our partners: Macclesfield Museum was under threat of closure. Such an announcement made the public confront first-hand the realities of the threats currently facing local small museums.
British Victorian Egyptologists were perhaps the first heritage crowd-funders in the world. The Egypt Exploration Fund (now the Egypt Exploration Society) founded by Amelia Edwards was based on the local social network she skilfully recruited to raise funds for fieldwork in Egypt and for founding the local public museums in UK. Through archival material from the Egypt Exploration society and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, Beyond Beauty highlighted the impressive female crowd-funders behind most of the ancient Egyptian collections in northwestern UK museums. The personal stories of these ordinary women and men were intended to remind the public of the power of local communities and their capability of safeguarding their local museums in the face of current wave of funding cuts.
One of the aspects reflecting the 'academia v the public' debate most strongly is how rarely ancient Egypt contributes to modern public debates touching upon our daily hopes and fears. Although we can reconstruct the very intimate details of the lives of the ancient Egyptians, rarely do we explain what our scholarly discoveries could mean to the lives of today´s ordinary citizens. By abandoning the life and death narrative dominating museum galleries through the theme of body image and perceptions of appearance, Beyond Beauty attempted to bridge this gap.
It mainly displayed what are perceived as “dismembered” “orphaned” objects such as Brighton museum's female figurine, dubbed “curvy lady” by Two Temple Place staff and volunteers. The curvy lady symbolises fertility and is marked with tattoos reflecting how the ancient Egyptians were among the first to use tattooing to transform their bodies and acknowledged different body shapes. Similar shaped tattoos are still used today in modern Upper Egypt. Despite the figurine's immediate connection to today's culture of tattooing and attitudes towards body shape, rarely would the curvy lady be displayed solely in a display case as a centre piece,even if it actually made it to the display stage.
Due to their imperfect status, non precious materials, or non-high quality craftsmanship, other objects such as incomplete mummy masks, or coffin hands or feet are also sentenced with a destined-for-storage verdict. Such "orphaned" "imperfect" objects are testimonies of the lives of the many ordinary individuals who lived along the Nile valley thousands of years ago. They were in the eyes of their original owner precious personal belongings and could have costed them their life-savings. Today these dismembered objects are overshadowed by museological and disciplinary perceptions of what counts as interesting and worthy of display. To bring justice to their primary owners Beyond Beauty put them centre stage and offered them celebrity treatment within display cases and publicity leaflets. Through these objects the visitors were meant to see a reflection of our modern concerns and desires for body shape and appearance through the personal belongings of ancient lives.
To bring ancient Egypt even closer to the hearts and minds of visitors, we raised the question of how the ancient Egyptians would transform their bodies and appearances if they were living among us today. For the second half of the exhibition, Two Temple Place's ancient Egyptian guests were accompanied by artist Zahed Taj-Eddin's 'Nu shabits'; liberated figur(ines) who intervened the premises, wandering free with no master. Zahed's artistic interpretation put forward suggestions of how the shabtis would view and react to our world of appearances. In linking ancient Egypt to our modern daily concerns and routines the visitors were able to see how the past can help us understand ourselves.
Victorian ‘Musketeer’ archaeologists like Flinders Petrie formed strong bonds with local communities; even Amelia Edwards promoted tourism to Egypt within the UK. Yet, ancient Egypt within museums and arguably within academia is to a great extent detached from modern realities. Despite all curatorial efforts to keep visitors’ attention in museum galleries, exhibition events, shop and café can be the main attraction to museum visitors. Thus, in an attempt to create a full experience of Egypt within Two Temple Place, the exhibition events and shop reflected the perceptions of the body and appearance within modern Egypt.
Working closely with Egyptian NGOs, the Egyptian community in London, and the Egyptian embassy the exhibition celebrated modern Egypt and the continuity between its past and present. Throughout February modern Egyptian perceptions of self presentation and appearance were narrated by Egyptian artists and entrepreneurs through the exhibition's events programme and evening lectures. Visitors were able to take home not only a full experience of Egypt but also a "piece" of it.
The products in the shop were sourced by Assil Hub and Jam Space. Assil Hub promotes and supports young Egyptian artists and NGOs working in the art sector. It also supports a good cause: Amina Badaui, founder and owner of Assil who joined us from Egypt, works closely with Egyptian NGOs mentoring and training single Egyptian females maintaining low-income families as well as young Egyptian designers and artists who infuse ancient Egyptian motifs with modern designs. Our second retailer was Jam Space, an Egyptian London based bespoke furniture and home accessories design retail, which infuses modern and ancient Egyptian designs on European furnishing and accessories. Jam Space is founded by Hedayet Taymour an internationally renowned female Egyptian interior designer.
Anyone who has visited Egypt would agree that an Egyptian experience would not be complete unless koshari - Egypt's renowned street food - is on the menu. An unusual combination, koshari mixes lentils, macaroni noodles and rice into a single dish which is topped with a spicy tomato sauce using a special Egyptian spice blend, garbanzo beans and fried onions. The idea sounds strange until you taste it! To ensure the exhibition was a return ticket to ancient and modern Egypt, every Wednesday night a koshari food cart was parked outside the exhibition door serving fresh hot koshari.
The extent to which Beyond Beauty contributed to reinvent ancient Egypt and resolve the 'academic v public' debate might remain obscure. However, one definite positive outcome was experiencing how pop-up venues and collaborating with non-subject specialists has invigorated our curatorial spirit and helped us stay true to an interpretation of ancient and modern Egypt which follows rather than leads the public needs.
The exhibition catalogue and a press release can be downloaded from Two Temple Place's website. A teacher's pack relating to the exhibition has also been provided.
In London? You can try koshari from our sponsor http://www.kosharistreet.com/