By Andrea Byrnes. Published on Magazine Reviews, Egyptological. May 31st 2012
The Ashmolean Museum, a neoclassical edifice built by Sir Charles Cockerel in 1845, has invested both money and creativity in a refurbishment of the entire museum and art gallery. The effect, bright and open, a sympathetic blending of old architecture and new design, is both inviting and attractive. The Ancient Egypt and Sudan galleries were the last to receive the modernization treatment. Costing over £5 million and designed by Richard Mather, they were re-opened in November 2011.
The old displays
Whilst I was familiar with the museum as a whole before the modernization, I had spent most of my visits in recent years in the Egyptian galleries, which were one of the best educational resources in the country. Their value lay not in pretty display cabinets, striking lighting or well designed layouts, but in the volume and range of objects that were on offer.
Apart from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London, the Ashmolean had the best publicly displayed collections of Predynastic items in the UK, with a great mix of elaborately painted vases, complete grave goods from individual graves, jewellery and rather more mundane items. From there, a small room displayed cabinets of shabtis, tiny statuettes and amulets in huge numbers – a fascinating insight into the volume of these objects that came out of Egypt, giving a glimpse of all the different twists and turns in forms and styles. Next, a large room walked the visitor through cabinets showing Egypt chronologically. Not just Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom but the Intermediate periods as well. It was an impressive way to view Egypt through time. The biggest gallery contained the Taharqa temple, of which more later (it hasn’t moved), some lovely Amarna pieces and a good selection of sundry other items. In a small and poorly lit room off the main gallery was the Hierakonpolis collection, consisting Predynastic items from the important Main Deposit of the site.
It was all housed in old-fashioned wood-framed cabinets, rather poorly illuminated and sometimes difficult to see – either because of the lighting or because items were so high on shelves that only very tall people would have been able to view them. That’s the price one paid for the sheer volume of objects that were on display, and it was a very fair price to pay.
The new displays
The new Ancient Egypt and Sudan galleries are a very different proposition. The six new galleries (22-27) lead the visitor on a tour that starts in the Predynastic period and ends in the Roman period. Between them, Egypt’s history is arranged partly chronologically and partly by theme. The emphasis in nearly all cases is on prestigious or beautiful objects, on plinths or behind floor-to ceiling glass, all brightly illuminated. The effect is, at once, modern, open and inviting. As far as visual impact goes, it scores very highly.
The collection now in display features the Ashmolean’s show-case items, many on display for the first time in many years, following conservation work. Gallery by gallery, these build up into an impressive collection.
The first gallery, 22 Egypt At Its Origins, combines the two small Predynastic galleries that were included in the old arrangement, now located where the gift-shop used to be. Visitors entering the gallery are welcomed by two massive headless statues Min. Standing on plinths just in front of the entrance, the two beautifully shaped limestone statues stop people in their tracks. The gallery is surrounded by glass cabinets, with a large flat cabinet in the middle. It includes a number of new objects, whilst losing some of the previous objects. On the whole, the overall effect is an improvement, retaining a large collection of items that are rarely seen in such volume elsewhere. The arrangement is chronological, providing an overview of the development of Egypt from its hunter-gathering roots, via the extraordinary pottery, figures, statuettes, palettes and beautifully worked blades of the Badarian and Naqada I and II, through to some sophisticated pieces of art work from the Late Predynastic. Most notable amongst the latter are the Two-Dog Palette, the statue of Khasekhem, the MacGregor statuette and the Scorpion and Narmer maceheads – all rich in iconography, skilfully made and endlessly debated. Dominant, in the centre of the room, is the Hierakonpolis collection, brought together in one place for the first time, and all the better for it. It is a remarkable collection of items and the new gallery does it justice.
The remaining galleries are less obviously coherent, and represent something of a mixture of themes, periods and areas. The next gallery on the tour, 23 Dynastic Egypt and Nubia, illustrates this perfectly. Here, the designers have abandoned the attempt to present Egypt and Nubia chronologically. The mixture of items from Egypt ranges from the Old Kingdom to New Kingdom, whilst Nubia is represented by items from the prehistoric A-Group to the Meroitic period. The centerpiece of the gallery is the massive sandstone shrine of Taharqa from Kawa in Sudan (c.690 BC), with its carved reliefs and traces of paintwork. Moved here from Nubia in 1936 in 150 pieces, this is the one object that has not moved from its previous location. Surrounding it are a number of standalone items, including the life-sized ram representing Amun, which stood at the shrine’s entrance, a very fine human-headed Amun and a superb polished head of Sobek. Around the outside of the gallery are glass-fronted cabinets containing a variety of displays. One cabinet is full of tiny figurines, each representing a different deity, a very nice way of introducing the number and variety of shapes and forms of the different deities to visitors. Others contain various items from A-Group, C-Group and Meroitic Sudan.
In 24 Life after Death in Ancient Egypt, the focus is on mummification, coffins and grave goods. A number of bright and lively coffins are on display, interspersed with a variety of objects that usually accompanied the dead into the afterlife, including canopic jars, funerary stelae, funerary models, amulets, shabtis, ornamental ceramics and even the pieces of a wheel from the royal chariot from the tomb of Tuthmosis III. The main centrepiece is the sarcophagus, coffins and mummy of Djeddjehutyiuefankh, a 7th century BC, 25th Dynasty member of a family of Theban priests. Suspended from the ceiling, each beautifully painted layer, in whites, blues, yellows and reds, can be seen and admired, and the mummy itself, also in display in the bottom coffin, is covered with a delicate blue bead cover. The mummy coffins on display are few in number but of very high quality, with bright and detailed paintwork.
25 The Amarna Revolution includes many of the lovely Amarna reliefs that used to be on display in the Taharqa gallery, but were very high and poorly lit. They have been brought together with the vast Amarna blue-painted vessels that used to be in different gallery, and reunited with a headless but finely sculpted and painted statue of Akhenaten. The show-piece has to be the fragment of a wall painting showing the two of the daughters of Akhenaten and Nefertiti sitting at the feet of their parents. It retains all its original colour, and the vignette of two girls, the one cupping the chin of the other in her hand, is both intimate, endearing, its style natural in a way that previous highly stylized versions of Egyptian art never quite achieved. The quality of the pieces is excellent, displaying much of the life, colour and movement so characteristic of the Amarna period.
26 Egypt in the Age of Empires is a tiny gallery dedicated mainly to Deir el Medineh. It contains a number of mainly small objects, including a good collection of ostraca (small pieces of limestone and broken pottery) marked with sketches and writing. Some of these tiny items are remarkable in terms of their detail and the quality of the art work. The centrepiece is a giant ostracon showing, on both sides, part of the Tale of Sinuhe in hieratic text in black and red.
27 Egypt Meets Greece and Rome focuses on mummies and their portraits and masks. Recently restored, the mummy portraits are instantly engaging, bringing the dead to life, and the intricate bandaging of the mummies is an art form in its own right. In an era where the pros and cons of displaying mummies is much discussed, these are displayed without ostentation.
The overall experience
It is impossible for museums today to please all of the people all of the time. There will always be those who want more beautiful displays with the focus on the most engaging of objects, even whilst this inevitably sacrifices the number of the items that can be displayed and undermines the ability to provide a representative range of items from each period in a given country.
I suppose it boils down to what museums are actually for, and what they should be trying to achieve. Whether organization by date, geography, theme, or a mixture of them is the best approach is probably a matter of personal preference. But the question of whether museums should be showing art or social history is rather more important. The Ashmolean has plumped for presenting Ancient Egypt in terms of art. An understanding of Egypt’s history and society has taken second place to the admittedly gorgeous items and arrangements on display. This may be a reflection of how visitors actually want and expect to experience modern museums, but the sanitization of the range of items, the reduction of item numbers, and the abandonment of the explicitly educational direction all seem like something of a loss.
The Egyptian collection online and in books
The Ashmolean has not yet put the catalogue of its Egyptian collection online in the form of a searchable database. The website does have some pages dedicated to the collection, including a description of the collection for visitors (http://www.ashmolean.org/departments/antiquities/about/AEgypt/), a plan of the Egyptian galleries (http://www.ashmolean.org/transforming/egypt/plans/), and a conservation case study (http://www.ashmolean.org/departments/conservation/casestudy/).
In the absence of good details online, there are two books that might be of use if you are thinking of visiting. Over 48 pages the short Ancient Egypt and Nubia at the Ashmolean Gallery Guide (Ashmolean Museum 2011) consists mainly of very fine colour photographs of the most striking of the exhibits, organized by gallery, with brief text to introduce each gallery and short item descriptions. The book is rather like the galleries themselves – the emphasis is on the loveliness of the exhibits rather than teaching the history of Egypt or the Sudan.
Ancient Egypt and Nubia in the Ashmolean Museum (Helen Whitehouse. Ashmolean Museum 2009, 148 pages) has a chapter introducing the museum’s history, maps of Egypt and Nubia and then a chronological artefact by artefact guide to the collection. Each period is introduced with a chronological outline in table form. Most of the items are again the showcase pieces, but there are many more of them than in the small Gallery Guide, 76 in total.
If you are interested in the Predynastic period look no further – the Ashmolean has displayed its collection very finely, and the broadly chronological arrangement gives a real sense of the way in which iconography and craftwork developed over the 100s of years before the Early Dynastic period.
The remaining galleries offer a mixture of themes and periods, displaying some wonderful pieces of Ancient Egyptian art. The multiple themes and the lack of a chronological path through the exhibits mean that it is difficult to find a coherent thread tying the galleries together. There is no narrative underlying the visitor’s tour. Depending on what the visitor is aiming to get out of the experience that may or may not matter.
The Ashmolean’s new galleries provide a lovely looking set of galleries, with some really nice features, and some exceptional objects. It is bright, modern and enjoyable and if it is rather less informative than it used to be, it certainly seemed to please the wide range of visitors there on the day.
Afterthought: A note for photographers.
It is no part of any review to comment on how well the lighting suits the photo-mad amongst us. The emphasis should always be on making the items look good for visitors, not maximizing their potential for those waving cameras around. And I am sincerely grateful to the Ashmolean for the continuing permission for visitors to take photographs. But if you are planning to visit you may find it useful to know that the lighting makes it very difficult to take photographs. The glass is highly reflective and the downward lighting brightens certain parts of the objects, with photographs coming out with parts overexposed and others underexposed. I tried using a polarizing filter, but that didn’t help.
All photographs by Andrea Byrnes unless otherwise stated, as follows:
Photograph of the Ashmolean Museum exterior by Remi Mathis (Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 Unported (sourced via Wikimedia Commons).
Photograph of statue of Min by Francis Lankester. Used with his kind permission.