Curating Kemet: 5 things that museums could do

Curating Kemet

There are a number of very simple approaches that museums could utilise in order to reaffirm the African origins of Ancient Egypt. And if you find yourself in a position to impart knowledge to others and are tired of waiting for this to be be implemented in your local museum, you can, of course, quite easily do this yourself.

1. What’s in a name?

A simple technique that I used when writing the information for a virtual gallery was to refer to anything that dated before the Ptolemaic Period (332 BCE) as ‘Kemet’ rather than ‘Egypt’. Αίγυπτος/Aegyptus were the names used by the Ancient Greek and Roman writers for Kemet. By continuing to use it, we are effectively still looking at the culture through a European lens. By abandoning this name, it is also possible to remove many of the Eurocentric interpretations that have been place upon this ancient African culture. It encourages people to look at the culture from a fresh perspective.

Statue of Senusret Kakaure. The British Museum, London

Many of the names that we use for rulers of Kemet are Hellenised (from the Greek versions). For example, Senusret Kakaure (left) a ruler of what we now refer to as the Twelfth Dynasty is sometimes referred to as Sesotris, which is the Greek version of his name. A similar issue arising the the use of Arabic names for ancient sites; Tell el-Amarna/Amarna, was named Akhet-Aten when it was occupied by the ancient people. By using the original African names we immediately resituate the ancient culture and its people.

A helpful site that lists all of the original names for the kings of Egypt and also gives the original names for sites is Digital Egypt.

2. Cultural context

Fragment of a colossal statue of Rameses Usermaatre-Setpenre in the Sculpture gallery at the British Museum

When an object is removed from its original site, the context is lost. It is therefore essential that museums seek to present objects within the appropriate cultural context. In university and national museums in the UK the Ancient Egyptian galleries are rarely connected to other African cultures. One exception to this is the Africa gallery at the Horniman Museum in south London. Here, a Kemite coffin is displayed alongside more recent ethnographic materials (see below) from a number of cultures from Africa and the African Diaspora.

Mami Wata Shrine in the Africa gallery at the Horniman Museum, London.

Kemite culture has much in common with other African cultures: from individual items such as hair combs, pottery, basketry, headrests; to concepts such as traditional religions, kingship and the role of women in societies. By referencing other African cultures that we know more about, curators can help visitors to obtain a better understanding of an ancient culture. In spite of this observation, you are more likely to find the Kemet collections next to the galleries that display Ancient Greece, Rome and the Ancient Near East than the African galleries. Adding ‘Africa’ to the name of a gallery that relates to ‘Ancient Egypt’ would be a good starting for many museums.

3. Illustrations

Detail of a display of early grave goods at the Kerma Museum, Sudan

Illustrations and reconstructions are an important part of the presentation of cultures in museums, particularly when that culture is ancient. The photograph on the left shows a display in the Kerma Museum, Sudan and offers a powerful artistic interpretation to illustrate how the original owners of the grave goods would have worn these objects. The racialised identity of such reconstructions is important, because at an unconscious level we are likely to recall this when we think about the culture and its people in the future. Many people who have attended talks that I have given on Kemet have later said that they had simply never thought of Ancient Egypt as African. This is, in my opinion, largely the result of the media (for example films or documentaries that show reconstructions of the ancient people), museums, and the education system failing to differentiate between the ancient and more recent cultures in Egypt.

4. Historical timeline

Which brings me onto the fourth point: looking at this region’s historical timeline and acknowledging the changes in cultures and populations that have occurred over the past ten thousand years. I have summarised the key periods in a previous post under the heading From Kemet to Egypt to Misr. By recognising external cultural interactions and internal transitions, it is possible to obtain a better understanding of Kemet’s importance as an ancient indigenous African culture. Historical timelines also demonstrate the importance of this region and its people in the development of the Coptic church, and so Christianity more widely.

5. Connecting with Kush

Detail from the wall paintings from the Tomb of Sobekhotep. Around 1400 BCE. Gallery 65 The British Museum

In two recent posts I have observed that museums often differentiate between the people and cultures of Kemet and Kush. The result of this practice is that any representation from Kemet that is seen to represent an indigenous African person will be labelled as ‘Nubian‘. This practice continues to be standard, in spite of the fact that the majority of museums acknowledge the similarities between these two ancient cultures.

The Black Pharaohs

The ‘Black’ Pharaohs

On the one hand mainstream Egyptology does not like to enter into discussions about the racialised identity of the ancient people; and yet certain representations are seen to be ‘acceptable’ as ‘African’. Dynasty 25 is a case in point. As rulers of Kush and Kemet these kings are often referred to as ‘The Black Pharaohs’ by the popular press and academics alike.

The Kushite rulers. Kerma Museum, Sudan.

In 1999 Robert Morkot published an academic book: The Black Pharaohs. Egypt’s Nubian Rulers. Then in 2007 a book entitled: The Nubian Pharaohs. Black Kings on the Nile was published by Charles Bonnet and Dominique Valbelle. It detailed the discovery of the group of statues now in the Kerma Museum (above).

I’d like to spend a moment deconstructing these titles and thinking about the implications for African centred approaches within Egyptology. Both books use the term Nubian to distinguish these rulers from any other Egyptian kings. A future post will consider this term in more detail, but my point at present is that both titles infer that there was an artificial point beyond which people were indigenous Africans, and that anyone further north was not.

For me, part of the problem lies in exactly how Egyptology defines indigenous African peoples. By adopting the stance of deciding what is and is not ‘acceptable’ as an African we are simply seeing a continuation of those early attempts to deny that Ancient Egypt was an African culture that I summarised in an earlier post.

Who’s Black and who’s not?

‘Libyan’, ‘Nubian’, ‘Asiatic’ and ‘Egyptian’

In that post I explored the racist ideologies of Nott and Glidden, who used the figure above to illustrate racial types. Three out of the four figures above are, of course, African. However, which would we identify in the modern sense of the word as ‘Black’. For many people who are of non-African descent, skin colour alone would be the deciding factor. Some people would fail to take account of other physical features, for example hair type, when considering this point. The Libyan, Nubian and Egyptian all have African-type hair and yet they are someone seen to be different. Libyans are generally depicted by Egyptians artists as having light brown skin; the Egyptians themselves range between light and dark brown skin tone; and of course the Nubians (Kushites) are depicted with jet black skin.

This is partly because many people fail to see the variation amongst indigenous African populations. It is because of this mindset that we find the Ancient Egyptian population being described as ‘mediterranean’ or ‘mixed’. It is worth noting that the term ‘mixed’ in this context does not refer to the diversity of African peoples, it is used to suggest that the entire population was in part descended from non-Africans.

Occasionally Egyptologists did identify some representations being of Africans based on features alone. When George Reisner discovered the representation of a woman at Giza, now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, he described her as a ‘negroid princess’. Not a term that we would use today; but in a modern sense she was ‘Black’. So what makes some representations ‘acceptable’ as representations of Africans and others not?

Detail from the Tomb of Ramose depicting Kemite/Ancient Egyptian people

I have spent some years trying to answer this question. For me the range of skin tones and hair types that we see when Kemites represent themselves (above) reflects a range of indigenous African peoples. Over time, as the country was occupied by people from outside then there is a wider variety in the population and also the dominant culture. A timeline of foreign contact illustrates this point well.

People who are from specific racialised groups are notoriously poor at recognising people who are from a different racialised background. This has consistently been found to be the case in eye witness identifications. This is probably because people focus more on the difference, for example skin colour, than other details. If we think again of the case of Ancient Egyptians, there are a number of factors that will influence whether someone identifies a representation as being of an African person:

  • If someone believes that the Ancient Egyptian people were European, they already show a bias. I discussed confirmation bias in my last post.
  • Some people do not understand the variety of skin colours and shades that are found amongst indigenous African people.
  • The ancient representations of the people from Kush present one type of African person. However, it seems today that unless an image matches this ‘type’ then it is not deemed to be ‘African’.

A few points to consider

Abydos Kushite
A representation of a bound captive from Kush. The pigment shows that the skin colour was the same as that used for the people of Kemet
  • Very few people of African descent have skin that is the colour of the Kushite representations. The ranges of skin tones of modern day indigenous African peoples are actually closer to those that we see on depictions of Kemites.
  • Ancient Egyptian artists sometimes depicted people from Kush with the same skin colour as those from Kemet (see left).
  • The hair type and hairstyles that are shown on Kushites are also found on depictions of Kemites.





Egypt versus Kemet: a case of cognitive dissonance?

A case of cognitive dissonance?

Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.

Frantz Fanon Black Skin, White Masks 1952

The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance was further developed by American psychologist Leon Festinger and published in 1957. Festinger suggested that we all strive to maintain consistency in our attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. That when there is an inconsistency we find this unpleasant and fall into a state of cognitive dissonance. In order to correct this tension we will automatically try to reduce or eliminate the inconsistencies. One way to do this is, as Fanon observed, to deny any evidence that does not fit with our existing belief or opinion.

Confirmation bias

We also know from experiments that people preference information that confirms an existing belief. This is known as confirmation bias and is the tendency to search, interpret and recall information that confirms a belief that we already hold. Of course academic work relies on evidence to support or dismiss theoretical interpretations. The problem when dealing with an ancient culture that no longer exists in its original form is that the evidence upon which we base our knowledge is extremely limited. Furthermore, we are influenced by our own identity, our view of the world, and how we learned about that culture. These issues can be magnified if that culture is studied in isolation, as is often the case with Egyptology.

Interpreting Ancient Egypt

I am often asked by people of both African and European descent why I view Ancient Egypt as an African culture. The inference being that as a White academic I must have a personal reason for choosing to undertake research from an African-focused perspective.

The answer is pretty simple. I view Egypt as African because this was how the ancient culture was first introduced to me: through the eyes of Greek and Roman artists, philosophers and writers. And more recently my work on other African cultures has presented further evidence that an African framework is the most sensible one in which to view Ancient Egypt prior to the first millennium BCE.

Poster advertising the Egyptian galleries at the World Museum, Liverpool. Taken May 2014

I am certainly not unique amongst UK Egyptologists in seeing Ancient Egypt this way. A number of museums in the England promote Ancient Egypt as African in terms of its geography, and its indigenous population and culture. The World Museum, which is part of the National Museums Liverpool, used an actor of African descent to play the part of a King in its educational films (see above). As I write, their Egyptian galleries are currently closed for renovation. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology in London regularly holds events that explore Ancient Egypt alongside other African cultures. And the Fitzwilliam Museum has a dedicated on-line Virtual Kemet Gallery that I developed during my time there as a curator, as part of community-focused project.

From Kemet to Egypt to Misr

Looking at a basic timeline demonstrates the extent to which the population and culture of Kemet have changed over the past 5000 years. I use this time span because it includes the first identifiable cultures known as Pre-Dynastic through to the present day. In addition to trading with other cultures from early in its history, Kemet was also ruled by outside cultures. The earliest of these were the Hyksos (known by the Kemites as ‘rulers of foreign lands’) during Dynasty 13 (around 1700-1550 BCE). Culturally the Hyksos derived from the Palestinian Middle Bronze Age.

From the first millennium BCE, Kemet was ruled by a number of out cultures, two of which were also African:

  • Libyan– Dynasty 23 (818-715 BCE)
  • Kushite– Dynasty 25 (747-656 BCE)
The Kushite rulers. Kerma Museum, Sudan.

Then from 525 BCE non-African rulers controlled Kemet, which became known as Egypt under the Macedonians and Ptolemaic rulers. Then in 642 CE Egypt became the Arabic Misr.

Gateway dating to the Ptolemaic Period, North Karnak
Gateway dating to the Ptolemaic Period, North Karnak
    • Achaemenid Iranian (525-404 BCE)
    • Second Persian (343-332 BCE)
    • Macedonian and Ptolemaic* (332-330 BCE)
    • Roman (30 BCE-395 CE)
    • Byzantine (395-668 CE)
    • Islamic Period  (642 CE)


*During the traditional periods of its history the Ptolemaic dynasty was the only non-indigenous to be resident. The other cultures continued to rule Egypt from their own states.

Remarkably the culture of Kemet continued in its traditional form until its population changed their religion. The Egyptian script continued to be used in religious contexts during the Ptolemaic and Roman occupations, in spite of the ‘official language’ changing to Greek. And Ptolemaic and Roman rulers were depicted on temple reliefs performing their duties as rulers of Egypt (see above).

The minaret of the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo

Then, as more and more people began to convert to Christianity, the original religion and culture also began to change; temples were abandoned and there was no resident ruler to fulfil the religious or societal role of King. With the advent of the Islamic settlement in Egypt, around 642 CE, the culture, language and religion changed entirely. The new settlers often made reference to the past in their writings and architecture. The minaret of the Ibn Tulun mosque (above), and which dates to the ninth century CE was modelled on the famous Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Avoiding confirmation bias

The history of Kemet/Egypt/Misr spans well over 5000 years. If, when looking at this vast timespan, we limit ourselves to a single approach, and we fail to acknowledge the impact of outside cultural influences upon the indigenous, then we automatically limit the evidence base that we are able to utilise. If we also consider the origins of egyptology as a discipline then the potential for a biased viewpoint is further increased.