A statement from the British Museum concerning their policy on displaying Kemet

nubia_versus_kush_king_taharqa

Today I received a statement from Dr Neal Spencer, Keeper of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, with regard to the British Museum’s policy on displaying Egypt as part of Africa:

The Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum has, in the last 15 years, focused much of its research on the relationship between Egypt and Nubia, from Prehistory through the Medieval Period. The geographic (Egypt and northern Sudan) and chronological scope of that research is of course a reflection of the collections material we hold that research can be undertaken on, and the research specialisms of staff within the museum. Surfacing that research in galleries is not always straightforward, as some of the material is fragmentary and difficult to display, but we publish widely (both online and in print) and run an extensive programme of lectures, gallery tours and conferences (seewww.britishmuseum.org with further links to online content and publication lists).

The present-day Egyptian galleries are arranged thematically – looking at life (and idealised life) in New Kingdom Egypt (Room 61, Nebamun), funerary beliefs in Egypt (Room 62-63), prehistoric Egypt (Room 64) and Egyptian temple/tomb sculpture (Room 4). Within those galleries and the chosen themes and space, there is limited scope to discuss how these themes relate to wider Africa, or indeed regions that Egypt was in contact with beyond Africa. A bioarchaeology section in Room 63 does highlight how future research might tell us about migration patterns within and beyond Africa, which would of course be relevant. The Room 4 display does feature some objects relating to Dynasty 25 and the Kushite state and culture.

Room 65 is the exception, as the chosen theme here expressly looks beyond Egypt to explore its relationship with areas further south, across a period spanning prehistory to the Medieval era. This gallery – entitled “Sudan, Egypt and Nubia” – looks at the distinct aspects of Nubian and Egyptian cultures, alongside shared elements, and how they were at times entangled, with ideas, iconography, art, craft, technologies and so on travelling in both directions. This gallery highlights Egypt in the context of another great and (importantly) contemporaneous African civilisation, using objects from the collection.

Research, collections and display on Africa at the British Museum are not limited to the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, but are ongoing across the Museum. Egyptian objects (principally of 19th and 20th century date) are also featured in the Living and Dying gallery, and the Africa galleries. Finally, we are currently in the process of creating a collection relating to 20th century Egypt, with associated research. This very much places Egypt in its global context, and an emerging story within that is around Egypt’s engagement with sub-Saharan Africa during the 20th century – something that is less often highlighted than its relationship to the Middle East, Europe, USSR and USA. The outputs of this project are still being defined, but might include small displays, a book and digital content.

We are very aware of different interpretative frameworks for how Egypt is part of Africa at different periods, and around the reception and interpretation of ancient Egypt, but none of our galleries focus on interpretative frameworks nor the historiography of research. This current situation in no way precludes future displays on such subjects, whether in permanent galleries or exhibitions.

We seek to be open to debate, new ideas and discussion. Public programming and online content is naturally quicker to reflect such things (for example, inviting Sally-Ann Ashton to give three lectures at the British Museum on the subject of African-centred approaches to Egyptology), as gallery interpretation can take time to change, for logistical reasons. The current displays and information vary in date from 1979 to 2015, depending on the individual gallery, but as we have opportunities to update those, we will of course consider new research and perspectives.

Neal Spencer, Department of Ancient Egypt & Sudan, British Museum

 

5 thoughts on “A statement from the British Museum concerning their policy on displaying Kemet”

  1. How can there be no room for our people to overstand where they have come from, so they know where they need to go. Personally, I believe this needs another look and I will do all in my power to do so. According to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization) it has been proven and passed that the people and civilisations of today’s Egypt, thens Kemet, and prior civilisations are in turn of African Descent. Chiekh Anta Diop, is an Historian, Anthropologist, Physicist and Politician who studied the human races origins. Through science and various methods including studying and deciphering the Kemetic language to create Wolof to further understanding the link between today’s Egypt and Africa. Diop also presented various witness accounts, which were written by ancient authors such as Herodotus and Strabo, who have stated and argued that the Colcheans were Egyptians. His work has also conducted in the testing of various Kemetic mummies which have been found. We will uprise and do all in our power to get this changed and be awarded what we are rightfully owned

    1. I think you have identified a key problem here; the majority of academics who specialise in Kemet have no knowledge of other African cultures and tend to focus solely on parallels with modern day Egypt. Fortunately there are now some scholars who have the necessary skills to compare the ancient language of Kemet with other African languages, but they are still very small in number. We really need more of this type of work.

  2. P.S.
    I forgot to add that the 25th Dynasty comments are another National Geographic “Black Pharoah” slap in the face because it still implies innuendo that Nubians were somehow “more African” than the people of Kemet – which is an outrageous lie, of course. So I have no hope that the British Museum will ever be explicit when it comes to its public displays, at least anytime soon. Have a great day!

    1. Thanks for your comments. I have made this same point in my communications with the museum. That having a gallery that recognises ‘Nubia’ only as African removes Kemet further from the continent and African cultures.

  3. Saying there is “no room” to discuss this sounds like a copout to me. Also the use of the term “interpretation” is dancing around the issue. Its like saying the Japanese Shogun were Japanese is an “interpretation.” Academics and Egyptologists have been clinging to this ambiguous version of Egypt for much too long and I strongly feel it is deliberate (and irresponsible). Lastly, the comments on Egypt’s relationship to Africa in the Middle Ages and the 20th Century is a shallow attempt to address this issue. It is also irrelevant because the issue here is the origins of predynastic and early dynastic Kemet, which has been written extensively about by such individuals as Maria Gatto, Bruce B.Williams and David Wengrow to name just a few. That the emerging Kemetic culture started developing from an African pool of cultures that continue to be represented to this day in Africa seems to make these people buckle down even more. Therefore, this response is a cheap attempt to address the issue, which offers historical periods way after the fact. Instead the British Museum chooses to attempt to keep one of Africa’s most important historical periods “shrouded in mystery.” Except it is not so mysterious anymore (and they know it). I wish the writer of that letter could see my words because this behavior flies in the face of culture and true academia, Dr. Ashton. No other ancient civilization studied so deeply has been shrouded in so much artificial mystery as Kemet. Thank you for your time reading this.

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