Curating Ancient Egypt at the Manchester Museum

We are grateful to welcome Campbell Price, Curator at Manchester Museum in England, to tell us about what it is like being a curator of an Egyptian collection. Please make sure to visit the Museum’s website to learn more about its Egyptian collection.

The Manchester Museum holds one of the UK’s largest collections of objects from ancient Egypt and Sudan, and one that is in many respects among the most important in the world. The core of the collection, which contains a total of over 16,000 objects, comes from the pioneering excavations of William Matthew Flinders Petrie – the ‘father of Egyptian archaeology’. One of Petrie’s main individual sponsors was Jesse Haworth, a Manchester textile manufacturer whose generosity ensured that the city’s University museum received a significant number of Petrie’s finds. The main strength of this material is that it comes from scientifically controlled excavations, rather than the open art market.

Looking over the new Galleries (Courtesy: Manchester Museum)
Looking over the new Galleries (Courtesy: Manchester Museum)

In particular, Manchester houses a large number of objects from the site of Kahun (sometimes referred to as ‘Lahun’) near the Faiyum lake. Kahun is best known as the town built to house workers on the pyramid of Senwosret II (c. 1877-1870 BC) and which continued to function for the maintenance of the cult of the deceased king. Everyday items from relatively ordinary houses shed light on aspects of life not usually known from ancient Egypt. Objects which were previously known mainly from tomb scenes – such as furniture, brick moulds and even a bee hive – are preserved in good condition. Having this material makes the Manchester Museum uniquely well-placed to challenge the still-widespread conception of the ancient Egyptians as morbidly obsessed with death.

At the end of 2012 the Museum re-displayed its archaeology and Egyptology collections in a suite of new ‘Ancient Worlds’ galleries. This was a unique opportunity to research the collection and communicate the stories of objects in new ways. Yet it was also a challenge – familiar to many curators of Egyptian collections – to balance the rich evidence for ‘daily life’ in ancient Egypt with an equally rich (though often less well-provenanced) group of funerary material. The Manchester Museum has often been associated with its pioneering work on the study of mummies. The collection houses 24 human mummies, which have been the subject of scientific research since 1908, when Margaret Murray led an interdisciplinary team in the UK’s first scientific mummy ‘autopsy’ – unwrapping two mummies from an intact Middle Kingdom burial from Deir Rifeh. The ‘Manchester method’ of investigating Egyptian human remains was made famous in the 1970s, when the then-curator of Egyptology, Rosalie David, set up the Manchester Egyptian Mummy Project. The Project examined mummies in Manchester and elsewhere to investigate ancient disease and mummification techniques, establishing a procedure that became standard practice.

A Brick Mould from Kahun (© Paul Cliff)
A Brick Mould from Kahun (© Paul Cliff)

The new Ancient Worlds galleries acknowledge Manchester’s significant contribution to these scientific studies, while presenting the unusually rich evidence for daily life in ancient Egypt. As for most museums nowadays, Manchester Museum is actively trying to engage new audiences – and maintain the interest of existing ones. It is thus hoped that by including a robust digital component for those seeking more information, the world-class collections in Manchester will continue to inform and inspire our visitors.

Campbell Price

Dr. Price received his Ph.D in Egyptology from the University of Liverpool, where he is an Honorary Research Fellow. He has been Curator of Egypt and the Sudan at the Manchester Museum since 2011.

Note

The opinions expressed in this guest blog entry do not necessarily represent the views of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities nor its chapter in Vancouver.

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