2 January 2012

The new Egyptian gallery at the Ashmolean Museum - A personal view

By Alice Stevenson,
Pitt Rivers Museum
The Ashmolean’s new gallery of Dynastic Egypt and Nubia with the Shrine and the Ram of Taharqa © Richard Bryant / arcaid.co.uk

In 1894 the British Museum somewhat disdainfully declined W.M.F. Petrie’s offer of some early Egyptian statues that he had found while conducting excavations at Coptos in Egypt. It was the Ashmolean who accepted them. Amongst their number were two life-sized figures of the ithyphallic fertility god Min and it is these unique, monumental effigies that, over a century later, assertively welcome visitors to the newly refurbished Egypt and Sudan galleries at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. They represent the earliest substantial pieces of monumental art to have survived from the prehistoric Nile Valley and they form just one of several distinctive pieces on show.

This latest £5 million renovation of the Ashmolean’s, world-class, 40,000 strong, Egyptian and Nubian (Sudanese) collection opened at the end of November. Redeveloping such a resource is no mean feat given the competing agendas and expectations of a university museum.  The needs of primary and higher education, the academic community, tourists and a multi-faceted public all had to be given consideration. Impressively, the result is a well-balanced and striking range of displays, an accomplishment that is all the more remarkable given that these were constructed in less than a year.

The narrative thread – which weaves along a roughly circular route through six galleries and encompassing some 2,000 objects – is a chronological one. Each of these six rooms is characterized by a broad theme that provides the space within which the strengths of the Ashmolean’s collections are articulated: Egypt at its Origins; Dynastic Egypt and Nubia;  Life After Death in Ancient Egypt; the Amarna Revolution; Egypt in the Age of Empires; and Egypt Meets Greece and Rome.

Walking clockwise, the first exhibits, which include the Coptos colossi, are set within the Neo-Classical Ruskin Gallery. Assembled here is the richest collection of Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egyptian objects outside of Egypt. Many of these 5000-year old objects are on view for the first time, including the recently conserved and fragile Hierakonpolis ivories. These small figurines are beautifully lit in a top-of the range case to ensure their preservation. Throughout this gallery, and the others, the associated captions are concise and informative, including reference to up-to-date research.

The trail leads on through to the Dynastic Egypt and Nubia gallery, the centre-piece of which is the stone shrine of King Taharqa, once part of a temple at Kawa  (Sudan) around 680 BC. Today it houses a statue of Taharqa himself, one of several objects lent to the Ashmolean to complement the new exhibits. There are also interactive elements within this gallery, and these are just enough to engage visitors without trivializing or jarring with the wider exhibition experience. For example, a case of bronze statuettes is situated in the shadows so that, using buttons, visitors can illuminate different objects in order make the connection between the god represented and the Egyptian sites with which they are associated. 


Coffin lid of Djeddjehutyiuefankh
Painted wood, from Deir el-Bahri, Western Thebes, 25th Dynasty, 770-712 BC. AN1895.153/5/6 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford


Most popular with visitors will undoubtedly be the gallery themed around ‘Life After Death’. One of the most novel, yet culturally appropriate features, is the invitation to visitors to recite the ancient Egyptian offering formula on behalf of one of the mummies, once a singer in the cult of Amun. The stelae, which were once spread floor to ceiling in the old galleries forming a bewildering mosaic of images, are now neatly arranged on the wall and it is much easier to make the linkages between text and object. The rationalisation of objects in this way provides for a much more engaging experience. The displays are also far more vibrant, especially in the Amarna gallery. In this room the objects have been presented to convey a sense of the colourful world of ancient Egypt, often lost in shadowy displays that attempt to invoke an unnecessary aura of mystery. As visitors move to the final gallery, where Egypt meets Greece and Rome, they come face-to-face with newly restored mummy portraits. The most startling piece is a very different sort of portraiture. It consists of the mummy of a small child set beside an installation by contemporary artist Angelica Palmer. On 111 sheets of glass she has captured the ghostly, three-dimensional image of the infant’s mummified corpse as revealed through recent cat-scans of the body.

As visitors leave the this area they once again pass the entrance to the ‘Egypt at its Origins’ section. It is an effective juxtaposition, reinforcing the sense that this was dynamic society, one which witnessed a continuous transformation over three millennia. This is a refreshing departure from some other recently arranged displays, in which Egypt is presented as a monolithic entity devoid of temporal depth.

Yet there is something still absent from the ‘crossing cultures, crossing times’ strategy which has informed the development of these galleries: it does not cut across our own time or culture in any effective way, and modern-day Egypt and Sudan is largely missing. As the oldest museum in Britain, the Ashmolean has not only acquired  superb collections, but it has also inherited a rich history of collecting practices and biographical intrigue. Entangled with these objects are centuries’ worth of alternative conceptualizations of Egypt and its place within Western imagination – not least of which is the Coptos colossi. There are a few glimpses of such narratives within the text panels, principally of the Egyptologists associated with Oxford, such as Petrie’s innovative development of seriation and F.L. Griffith’s legacy to the University of Oxford. These are uncomplicated, traditional accounts that present knowledge construction as progressive and ultimately colonial. Yet a university museum is one which should be able to frame challenges to conventional understandings of the past and to the politics of the past in the present.

Nevertheless, overall this redisplay is a great accomplishment, both for the architect Rick Mather, who has created an elegant space, and for the Assistant Keeper of Egypt and Sudan, Liam McNamara, who has spearheaded a refreshing and dynamic series of encounters with the ancient Egyptian and Nubian world. 
 

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