Working at the Manchester Museum I spend a lot of time in Ancient Worlds. Each time I enter the gallery, it’s as though the objects in the collections whisper their secrets across the millennia, intertwining the fingerprints of those who crafted and used them, together with those who unearthed, donated, and researched them.
One of my project for the last few months has been to transcribe the Museum’s correspondence archives for Ancient Egypt and Sudan, as part of the Museum’s on-going commitment to accessibility and to furthering an understanding its collections. Having studied Egyptology at the University of Liverpool, followed by a Masters in Critical Theory, I am particularly interested in early linguistics, but also in a historicist approach to interpreting the object and its mythologies. It has therefore been a real privilege to have the opportunity to work with these letters. Opening the box was like entering Aladdin’s cave, Smaug’s lair, or even KV 62! And I will admit to being more than a little star-struck reading handwritten letters by the likes of William Flinders Petrie, Alan Gardiner, James Quibell and Francis Llewellyn Griffith.
Museums are increasingly being called upon to shift their focus towards people; from an authoritative voice towards a community-motivated democratic narrative. It has thus become necessary for museums to re-contextualise collections in ways other than the traditional so-called ‘museumificaton’ and the appropriation of objects, their communities, and their intellectual rights.
Once unearthed, an object is orphaned from its archaeological context, but its (hi)story continues; the use of archives, such as these communications with the Museum, is potentially a powerful tool in the process of re-contextualisation without marginalising the physical artefact.
As iconic images go, the Riqqeh tomb group must be near the top of Manchester’s list. The group comprises of the famous pectoral, and other associated jewellery including a small gold figure of the god, Min—complete with the tale of the contemporary tomb robber, being crushed in the act as the roof fell in, reaching to take the priceless jewellery from the body of the deceased tomb-owner.
On 8th November 1913, Petrie wrote to Winifred Crompton, the then curator;
“As to repairing the Min. The metal has so much silver in it that it is quite rotten, + will not bear straightening. Of course it was originally quite straight, but bent by the fall of the roof. Nothing could straighten it unless the silver was dissolved out electrically… No jeweller could do anything for it. A good chemist might perhaps improve it. The best repairer at Oxford, who flattened the pectoral, could do nothing for the Min.” [ID 332]
The initial excitement of, ‘Wow, I know exactly what piece this is referring to, and … Wow!’ was replaced by another, calmer, more reflective excitement; the material biography of this object is on-going, and its continuing story poses questions like, to restore or not to restore? How much value do/should we place on aesthetics? Whose story is reflected in what we see in the gallery?
Reading these letters is giving me a tangible insight into the world of Egyptology of the early twentieth century, from the famous names, to those with the leisure time to pursue an amateur interest. And significantly many of the issues faced by museums are ones that are still pertinent today. The current uncertainty over future of MOSI, recalls Petrie’s diatribe of 17th April 1897, after a visit to Gloucester he writes;
“I want you and the Museum’s Association to terrorise Gloucester a bit… I found the building, and heard that everything was packed up to clear the place for a technical school. I hope “packed up” is not an euphemism for some other way of getting rid of the civic collection at the bidding of some stingy county councillors or some one of the kind. At this rate no collection is safe unless there is permanent public interest on the part of some people in office in the place.” [ID 315]
Petrie seems to be quick to voice his opinions, in handwriting that flows from one word to the next, with the pen barely leaving the paper between words. If he were here still in this age of instant communication, I am quite sure that Twitter would be his social media of choice, and I, for one would certainly follow him!