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The European Museum and Egypt

Travelling and objects

'This is the most beautiful, prosperous and stable country in the world' (travel account by an Anglo-Irish monk, Symon Semeonis, visiting Alexandria in the 13th century AD)

'Let them talk to me no more of Rome, let Greece be silent. What magnificence, what mechanics. What other nation ever had the courage to undertake work so surprising' (letter from the Danish captain Frederik Norden, travelling in Egypt in AD 1737)

In the period between the fall of the western Roman Empire, in the fifth century AD, and the eighteenth century, people might travel from Europe to Egypt for any or all of the following main reasons:

  1. trade
  2. war
  3. diplomacy
  4. pilgrimage

Throughout this period, land and sea routes across Europe and the Mediterranean were infested by bandits and pirates; there was no certainty of returning home. Nevertheless, trade was continuous and strong, the Crusades established small Western European Christian states in the eastern Mediterranean from 1099 into the thirteenth century, and the transport of large numbers of pilgrims to and from the Holy Land was big business. Egypt lay on the Christian pilgrim route to and from Jerusalem partly for practical reasons of wind direction and restocking en route, partly because it offered religious sites connected with the flight of Jesus, Mary and Joseph into Egypt, and partly because it was famous in Europe for its Christian monasteries, especially those in the Wadi Natrun west of the Nile Delta.

Travel south of Cairo was difficult for Europeans; religious and cultural hostility to Europeans was strong, and for safety travellers required a permit and protection - the permit was difficult to obtain, given government concerns in Egypt over European spying and over losing trade advantages to Europeans.

There is little indication that travellers regularly brought back objects as mementos, but the object has a prominent role in all four categories:

trade commodity
war booty
diplomacy gift
pilgrimage relic

From a date yet to be researched in detail, travel fostered a new genre in writing, the narrative travel account in the first person; from the introduction of printing to Europe, the travel account has a better chance of distribution and survival, and there are several hundred (450 on one count) for travellers from Europe to Egypt during the period 1450-1700. Out of the travel account, two new, not always distinct aspects or categories of travel are added to the four listed above:

5. travel for knowledge - a marginal but influential feature of post-Renaissance travel

6. travel for leisure - the antecedent of the tourist in the nineteenth century, when new leisured middle classes had the opportunity of secure travel in large numbers and in shorter times, following the introduction of the steamboat to Mediterranean travel in the 1840s

An early visible example of the sixth may be the remarkable manuscript left by an unnamed Venetian man who travelled to Egypt in 1589.

For these two new travel aims, the object played a more distinctive role, for category 5 as evidence, for category 6 as the travel memento, the part standing for the whole. The different role of the object in each category of travel contributes to the emergence of the collection of objects representing the material culture of other times and places, both prior to and part of the development of archaeology and anthropology.

Technologies of description: books, pictures, maps from manuscript to print

The perception of objects and their use in the construction of knowledge depend at the social level on the normative pattern of communication at the time. If the twenty-first century is an age of advancing electronic, but still televisual communication, then the European Middle Ages might be characterised as an age of manuscript, and the nineteenth century as an age of advanced printing. It took the several centuries in between not only to perfect the techniques of printing, with the introduction of lithographic illustrations at the end of the eighteenth century, but also to develop the circuits of distribution and readership, upon which advances in detailed and analytical knowledge in the following century depended.

The development of archaeology, the analytical study of the past, was only possible from these specific phenomena:

These developments drew from realities far from the study of the past: improving maps was a military necessity, and the accurate recording of buildings belonged in the sphere of engineers and architects. The field of illustration was transformed with the introduction of photography for reproducing form.

The chronology of these fields of communication dictates the history of archaeology: in the eighteenth century, without circulation of reliably printed copies, without accurate reproductions of objects, and without maps, archaeology was in effect a physical as well as a conceptual impossibility. The modern antiquities museum shares the same history.


The European Museum: ideal and practice

In 1753 the British Museum was created by Act of Parliament, in one of the most enlightened gestures in law, with four pioneering aims still more radical than most can achieve in the twenty-first century:

  1. the collection should be freely accessible to all
  2. the collection should be staffed by full-time, not part-time, experts
  3. the collection should be inalienable, so that everyone could know where items were
  4. the collection should be impartial, not sectarian

These lofty ideals are rarely met. Most museums around the world charge admission, and even those that do not present forbidding exteriors to anyone of the 'wrong' class of people. Most museums preserve collections beyond the expertise of their staff. Even world-famous museums have disposed of more or less substantial quantities of the objects entrusted to them; the opinions and even the whims of each generation, whether through management or curatorship, remain a threat to most collections. Impartiality itself is a problematic term for a generation of deconstructivists; every selection and display reflects some intervention, some judgement. Yet how many collections have the self-consciousness to attempt avoiding offence and the imposition of norms?

The ideals of the 1753 Act can be contrasted with the contemporary reality in the political economy of museums - in other words, the ways museums spend their money, and the ways institutions (up to the level of the nation) spend their money on museums. There are two overarching preconditions for the survival of a collection:

  1. assembly of objects in a place secure against theft and human damage
  2. assembly of objects in a place secure against natural damage to their physical condition (such as water, fire, damp, building collapse)

The curators, supposedly 'persons caring for' the collection, may be able to interpret and evaluate items in the collection, but their efforts are meaningless unless there is expenditure on these two prerequisites - security and conservation. Although museums devote large sums to both, there is a revealing difference between the individual salaries rewarding staff in the three areas of curatorship, security and conservation. In the political economy of the Western-style museum, curators are deemed to have the most specialised knowledge and therefore receive more money, as being less replaceable, than conservators; conservators tend to be treated as 'just' technicians, because they use their hands as much as their minds, and so receive less, though still more than the security staff - without whom the collection has little chance of surviving.

European-style museums have built up great expertise in securing objects against the attack of human and natural forces; this is perhaps the greatest gift of the museum community to the preservation of the past worldwide. However, museums are generally considered useful primarily as places of display, and the principal export of Western museums has accordingly been in the field of gallery design - where, arguably, the Western expert has least to offer institutions around the globe, because there are rich and individual visual and aesthetic traditions in all places. It might be more productive to exchange design ideas, and techniques of conservation, while addressing the problem of secure space, precondition for any collection, in the less secure political environments.


The Egyptian object in European Museums
Collecting and studying the past during the early age of printing in Europe - the example of Peiresc

Nicolas Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637) never visited Egypt, and his research into Egyptian antiquities remained largely in manuscript form, accessible to very few. Only in recent years, have the written observations and drawings by Peiresc become more widely known (Aufrere 1990). Besides illustrating an exceptional early connoisseur of ancient Egypt, the Peiresc manuscripts demonstrate the gulf between seventeenth century and nineteenth century scholarship in their potential for accumulating knowledge and building on it - for the institutionalisation of the study of the past.

The advances in knowledge under Peiresc and his correspondants in a 'Republic of Letters' include two that were forgotten again by the late seventeenth century:

Peiresc was also interested in acquiring a mummified human body - at this time Pier Paul Rubens was one of the few to have one in his collection, known from a drawing sent to Peiresc by the painter in 1626; most ship captains refused to bring back human remains at this time (Aufrere 1990: 164-165).

The drawings of Egyptian objects in the Peiresc manuscripts are remarkable for their accuracy, in strong contrast to the reproductions in seventeenth and eighteenth century printed books, where the hand of the engraver tended to reinterpret the unfamiliar ancient Egyptian forms according to the European artistic conventions of the day. Until Vivant Denon established the practice of authorial correction to engravings for print publication, this visual filter would act as one of the main obstacles to disseminating and accumulating knowledge of the other.


From collection to Museum - in eighteenth century Europe

It is difficult to quantify the amount of ancient Egyptian material in Europe before 1700, not least because the institution of Museum did not exist to preserve objects in either private or public collections. Items brought already in the time of the Roman Empire include the obelisks of Rome, at the large end, and smaller works of sculpture such as the material at the site of a prominent temple to Isis at Benevento, and a Ramesside block statue for a man named Khahep, found during construction work in Vienna in 1800. The Sloane collection, with which the British Museum was founded in 1753, incuded about 150 Egyptian items, mainly Late Period amulets and shabtis, but including one larger hard stone item, the Late Period stela of Nekau, perhaps originally from Sais. In 1753 antiquities were a minor aspect of the British Museum collections, which were dominated by Natural History, Prints and Drawings, Coins and Medals, and Ethnography, until the development of archaeology from the early 19th century.

Three publications illustrate the presence of Egyptian antiquities in European collections during the 18th century AD:

The Gordon publication belongs to a brief episode of intense British antiquarian interest in Egypt, with travels in 1737 by Reverend Richard Pococke and the Anglophile Danish captain Frederik Norden, and in 1738-1739 by John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich, acquisitions of Egyptian antiquities, including anthropoid coffins, by the Lethieullier family from 1721, and the formation of a short-lived Egyptian Society in London.


The age of Mohamed Ali - industrialising Egypt in the early nineteenth century

From the thirteenth century AD, the principal political and military power in Egypt had been the Mamluk elite, first in independent control of the country, and from 1517 under the rule of the Ottoman Turkish caliphs. In 1798, the Mamluk forces were defeated by the French Revolutionary Expedition led by Napoleon Bonaparte. After Ottoman rule had been reestablished in 1801 by Turkish and British forces, at the capitulation of the French army in Alexandria, the Mamluks were destroyed by a new Ottoman governor of Egypt, an Albanian named Mohamed Ali; in 1811 he invited all Mamluk faction leaders to the Cairo citadel, and had them executed. Though nominally still part of the Ottoman Empire, the rule of Mohamed Ali marks the re-emergence of Egypt as an independent political player in the Mediterranean and Arab worlds. The energetic governor accelerated the modernisation of the Egyptian economy with the introduction of European industry, medicine and cash crops.

European and North American travel to Egypt was encouraged by four broad developments:

Collecting was an established European cultural practice at this period. Though marginal to trading and diplomatic activity, it had a major impact on the perception of the West in Egypt, and of Egypt in the West.

Transport of large antiquities and of large quantities of antiquities required state resources. Therefore large collections could only be built up and moved by the middle class entrepeneurs and painters who were in this period stationed permanently at the court of Mohamed Ali to represent the interests of the various European powers. However, the direct interest of European nation-states was slow to evolve, and only after several years and the fostering of European inter-state competition did national European acquisitions of large collections follow their formation by a few individuals in Egypt. The major players were the 'consuls' of France and Great Britain; the practice of collecting on a large scale is a highly specific cultural phenomenon, and in Egypt is due largely to one extraordinary figure, Bernardino Drovetti from Piedmont. Drovetti was a confidant of Mohamed Ali, from the time he helped the new governor resist a British attempt at occupation; as an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution, Drovetti fell out of favour at the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in France in 1815, but was so influential at court that the French kings continued to use him as consultant and representative. Drovetti was more interested in modern than in ancient Egypt, but did not exclude the latter; he seems to have been the first highly active collector in Upper Egypt as soon as it became accessible to travellers, with the security established after 1811 by Mohamed Ali. The fate of his first collection is a clear illustration of the slow transformation in attitudes to ancient Egypt among governments, and their treasuries, in Egypt: the French king found it too expensive, and it passed to the kingdom of Savoy, to form the first large national collection of Egyptian antiquities in Europe, at Turin. Here it joined the small number of Egyptian sculptures from the expedition of a trading diplomat-collector in the early eighteenth century, Vitalo Donati.

This sets the scene for the growth in the number of large-scale collections - presence of antiquities encouraged new acquisitions, and formation of a collection in one centre might encourage by competition the desire for a new collection in a rival city or state. For any would-be Egyptian Museum in Europe, there were two principal costs: the acquisition of the collection, and, far more expensive, its housing. New galleries were built to house the largest sculptural and architectural exhibits, but again only slowly and often against strong local resistance in each European centre. Jenkins 1992 narrates the struggle of museum authorities to fund museum buildings.

The larger early European and American collections were formed between 1817, when the English 'consul' Henry Salt begins to compete with Drovetti for acquisitions, and 1835, when, at the urging of Rifaat al-Tahtawi, Mohamed Ali decreed controls on the export of antiquities from Egypt (Reid 2002). The Egyptian Museum in Berlin reflects not so much this early phase, as the later arrival of Brandenburg-Prussia on the scene, with a scientific expedition of acquisition led by Richard Lepsius in 1842-1845. The Egyptian galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York include large scale sculpture mainly because it supported excavation in Egypt in the twentieth century.

Today there are five museums outside Egypt with large galleries displaying ancient Egyptian sculpture and anthropoid coffins:

  1. Egyptian Museum, Turin
  2. Louvre, Paris
  3. British Museum, London
  4. Egyptian Museum, Berlin
  5. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Although none compares with the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, issues of colonialism are raised by the scale of presence of Egyptian antiquity, and its display in such prominent architecture, outside Egypt (France 1991). Negative and positive aspects of this presence are not easy to research in the emotionally-charged atmosphere of the restitution debate. For good or for evil, together with the development of tourism and film, these architectural European and American spaces have been instrumental both in the advance of knowledge of ancient Egypt, and in the Western perception of Egypt, leading to the construction of the ancient Egypt we think we know today.

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