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

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

 

A letter to the British Museum

The British Museum

As some readers will know, I was invited to present a talk at the British Museum for Black History Month in October of last year. This was the third lecture that I have given at the museum on African-centred approaches to Egyptology. All have been extremely well attended by enthusiastic audiences. Having spent some time talking to members of the audience at the last lecture I decided that it might be helpful to contact the British Museum to relay some of their thoughts and my own personal experiences of curating Kemet. I sent the following letter* on 12 November to the relevant department and have not yet received an acknowledgement.

 The Letter

As you may know, I presented a talk at the British Museum on 24 October on African-centred approaches to Egyptology. The talk was well-attended with quite a number of community members present. Such was their interest, that I spent over an hour talking to people after the lecture; this was also the case after the other two talks that I gave on African-centred perspectives…
I felt that in your capacity of Keeper, you would want to know how people responded. A number of people then, and subsequently, expressed a view that the British Museum was not really making any effort to present ancient Egypt as part of an African civilisation. The one room that references Africa in fact compounds this issue because it is associated with Nubia rather than the more northern region of Egypt.
A number of people asked me why if in Cambridge, Liverpool and at the Petrie, Egypt was contextualised within Africa, this was not the case at the British Museum. Naturally I don’t have the answers to their questions regarding the British Museum’s policy, and in fact suggested that people should write to the museum directly. However, I do note that the educational material for schools does directly refer to ancient Egypt as an African culture and often direct people to this. I believe that some visitors would just appreciate this information in the galleries as well.
In addition to relaying these responses I felt that I should also share one very simply change that I made at the Fitzwilliam Museum and which had a huge impact on our Black communities who visited the museum. It was simply putting up a panel that explained about African-centred interpretations and perspectives. A number of people wrote to thank the Department for doing this.
Anyway, I wanted to write to you directly to relay this information. It seems such a pity when the Departments of Ancient Egypt and Sudan and Africa Oceania and the Americas supported both of the African-centred exhibitions that I put on at the Fitzwilliam Museum with objects, that the British museum is obtaining a reputation for disengaging with this issue.
As of 27 January 2017 I am still waiting for a response…
* This is a slightly shorter edited version of the letter that was sent. Abbreviations that were used in the original have also been written in full.

Kemet: Understanding African-centred Egyptology Lecture

Understanding African-centred Egyptology Lecture 2016

It was great to see so many friends at my recent London lecture for Black History Month, which had been organised by the Equiano Society and the British Museum. Some people who were not able to attend asked me if I would summarise the talk, so that is what this post will do.

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Colossal granite statues of Ptolemy VIII and either Cleopatra II or III. Maritime Museum, Alexandria SCA 279 and 278.

I began by talking about the lack of theoretical frameworks within Egyptology and illustrated this point later in answer to a question with the dating of the sculpture in the current exhibition: Sunken Cities. Egypt’s Lost Worlds. The statues above form part of this exhibition and are dating the Early Ptolemaic Period by the curators. However, I would suggest, based on parallels, that this in fact represents Ptolemy VIII and one of his wives. I’m not suggesting that my interpretation should be taken over that of the curators of the exhibition. However, I used it to demonstrate that if we had solid frameworks on which to date and interpret the material culture of Kemet, of Egypt at this time, then there would be no such debate.

Of equal importance is the extent to which the lack of academic frameworks  increases the likelihood of confirmation and cognitive bias.

Conspiracy

Statue of Rameses II with a missing nose and damaged face
Statue of Rameses Usermaatre-setepenre with a missing nose and damaged face

I then when on to consider popular conspiracy theories relating to the the ‘Whitewashing’ of Kemite culture; one of the most common is that European travellers deliberately removed the noses of statues in order to alter their appearance. I wrote my first post on this subject; debunking this particular myth, which risks distracting from embedded racist ideologies within the foundations of Egyptology as an academic discipline. The conspiracy to maintain an erroneous connection between ancient Egypt and non-African civilisations is much deeper than damaging statues.

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J.C. Nott and G.R. Gliddon, Types of mankind or, ethnological researches based upon ancient monuments, paintings, sculptures, and crania of races, and upon their natural geographical, philological and biblical history 1854

The illustrations above are from Nott and Gliddon’s 1854 publication on ancient Egyptian monuments. In it, they argue on the basis of nothing but their own prejudice and supremacist ideologies that the people of Ancient Kemet were non African. Here rulers are described as “entirely Jewish” and the caption that accompanies the drawing of a statue of Rameses Usermaatre-setepenre reads:

His features are superbly European as Napoleon’s, whom he resembles.

I have taken the liberty of including an actual statue of the King below!

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Fragment of a colossal statue of Rameses Usermaatre-Setpenre in the Sculpture gallery at the British Museum
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J.C. Nott and G.R. Gliddon, Types of mankind or, ethnological researches based upon ancient monuments, paintings, sculptures, and crania of races, and upon their natural geographical, philological and biblical history 1854

They continue with their racist ideologies throughout the book. And a summary of 3 out of 15 points in the book of their colleague Samuel Morton goes some way to explaining why these early authors were so keen to remove Egypt from Africa:

1.The valley of the Nile, both in Egypt and in Nubia, was originally peopled by a branch of the Caucasian race.

7.The Copts, in part at least, are a mixture of the Caucasian and the Negro in extremely variable proportions.

8.Negroes were numerous in Egypt but their social position in ancient times was the same that it now is, that of servants and slaves.

S.G. Morton, Crania Aegyptiaca, or, observations on Egyptian Ethnography, derived from anatomy, history and the monuments 1844: 65-66

Quite simply these writers were projecting their own distorted sense of the world upon the past.

Keeping up appearances…

Museums have a choice. They can either perpetuate the myths that were peddled by past scholars who belonged to a racist imperial past. Or, they forge ahead with a more appropriate presentation that shows the African origins of this ancient culture as well as the cultural diversity in the region across time. In actual fact in order to understand the history of Egypt you have to do just this.

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The Egyptian gallery at Manchester Museum

This can be as simple as including a map of Africa and reminding people that Egypt is an African culture with indigenous African people as a population. The screen at Manchester Museum achieves this by situating Egypt in Africa.

I went on to discuss how identifying only certain figures from ancient Kemet as African was really no different to the categorisations of Nott, Gliddon and Morton above. At the British Museum only one room is explicitly linked to Africa; this is the room that contains material from the region of Nubia and which includes images like the tomb painting below that depict people from this region.

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

By making a distinction between people from the region of Nubia (ancient Kush) and Kemet, Egyptology erroneously implies that there is one ‘type’ of African person. Could the figure below not also be seen as a representation of an indigenous African person? I would suggest so on the grounds that her hair is textured and is a style that is not found outside of African cultures.

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A detail of a relief showing royal wife Kawit having her hair styled

I have discussed possible solutions elsewhere on this blog. However, as I concluded in my lecture, until those who study Egyptology look more widely for cultural parallels and frameworks, it will continue to perpetuate a myth that engenders a divisive interpretation of the past. It feels odd to have to defend this culture as African, and yet in 2016 we are still having to do so.

 

The last indigenous King of Kemet

The last indigenous king of Kemet

Ruled from 360-342 BCE and was named Nakhthorhebyt, but is perhaps better known by his Greek name Nectanebo. He was the third and last ruler of what we now call the 30th Dynasty, and was the second king to be referred to as ‘Nectanebo’ by the Ancient Greeks.

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Nakhthorhebyt. Bibliotheca Alexandrina Antiquities Museum SCA 168.

The statue above is part of an exhibition at the British Museum, London entitled Sunken cities. Egypt’s lost worlds, which runs from 19 May to the 27 November 2016, and represents King Nakhthorhebyt. I can say this with confidence on two counts. Firstly, the double loop of the uraeus (cobra) on his brow, has been associated with this particular ruler and is an unusual feature. Secondly, the “portrait” (a word that the curator who wrote the entry in the catalogue uses. Sunken cities. Egypt’s lost worlds. Edited by F. Goddio and A. Masson-Berghoff. 2016: p. 134) can be linked to Nakhthorhebyt. Many of the 30th Dynasty representation are similar to those of the early Ptolemaic period. And even to specialists, are impossible to tell apart (see below).

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Sphinx with a royal portrait. Maritime Museum, Alexandria, SCA 282.

The similarities in the early Ptolemaic rulers’ Egyptian-style/Kemite portraits and those of the last indigenous dynasty were probably because of the Persian occupation that occurred in between. The Persian rulers were not resident in Kemet and so funding for large scale royal projects would not have been as forthcoming as under the last Kemite kings or the Macedonian Greeks who ultimately replaced them. Nakhthorhebyt spent much of his reign trying to prevent the Persian invasion.

So, who were the ancient Egyptians?

This is a question that the exhibition fails to answer. On numerous occasions in the exhibition the “native” Egyptians are referred to, and are distinguished from the arrival of Greeks, Macedonians and Romans. However, the only time that Africa is directly referenced is in regard to a group of amulets and moulds that were found at the city of Naukratis, where earlier Greeks settled. Images that are very similar to some of those that I have discussed in previous posts  are described in the catalogue as ‘Black Africans’ and are explained as “catering to Greek ideas of foreign and far-away Egypt” (Sunken cities. Egypt’s lost worlds. Edited by F. Goddio and A. Masson-Berghoff. 2016: p. 54). So, where does that leave the “portrait” of the last indigenous ruler? Was it an accurate representation of the people of Kemet at that time? This was, after all, how the ruler himself chose to be presented. There is no mention or discussion of his racialised identity in the exhibition or catalogue.

Once again we find the over-simplification of what is, and is not, “Black African”, a term that is, as noted, used in the catalogue. By continuing to make such distinctions, based on modern European ideals, Kemet is once again subtly removed from its African context and disassociated from indigenous African people. It is interesting that European scholars seem only to identify the depictions that the ancient Greeks and Romans produced to represent the people of Africa, as “African”. It is also notable that the ruler’s Greek name rather than his Kemite name is used by the museum. I have written before about the failure of museums to include the African names of Kemite rulers when describing them, and I will admit to having done so myself, on gallery labels often through lack of space. On reflection, however, I feel that these small points all add up and are subtle ways in which Ancient Egypt continues to be removed from its African context.

Is it worth visiting or buying the catalogue?

Hapy_statue
Colossal statue of a god of the inundation of the Nile. Maritime Museum, Alexandria, SCA 281

In general, the exhibition fails to explore, or explain, the often nuanced impact that Kemet had on ancient European cultures. Many of the identifications of rulers of the Ptolemaic period are, quite simply, incorrect and unexplained. However, the colossal sculptures that are displayed show Kemite sculptors at their best. Not only were they able to create colossal representations of their gods in a tradition that was thousands of years old, but they were able to adapt their skills and styles. Both the exhibition and catalogue acknowledge these achievements, but aren’t quite so forthcoming in presenting these accomplishments as part of an African culture.

 

Virtual Kemet: an on-line resource

Virtual Kemet

I was a curator in the Department of Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge from 2002 to 2015. During this time I worked on a number of special exhibitions, including one that traced the history of the head rest in East Africa from Kemet through to the early 20th century CE; another that explored how the Romans interpreted the culture of Kemet; and the final one that I worked on in 2013, which explored the history of the hair comb in Africa and amongst the African Diaspora. A number of resources relating to Kemet can be found on the museum’s website. The idea for the Afro combs exhibition came from Black British community groups and to ensure that the communities maintained a degree of control over the final exhibit, a community committee was set up to guide the whole process.

However, I also work with community members who cannot physically visit the museum. For the past 13 years I have worked in a number of English prisons. Following my first ever lecture in a prison the men, who were serving long term sentences, asked if there was any way of creating a virtual museum so that people who could not visit in person could still access the collections.

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Virtual Kemet

The result of nearly 4 years work was Virtual Kemet, an on-line resource that presented Ancient Egypt from an African-centred perspective.

The site

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Middle and Old Kingdom cases in the Fitzwilliam Museum, as seen on Virtual Kemet

The site is divided into 4 parts: People of Kemet; Daily Life and Religion; Funerary; and FAQ’s. You can navigate around the galleries on line and then obtain more information about any object by clicking on a magnifying glass. This opens a new section with a close up of the object (see above).

The benefits of a virtual gallery

Many museums have on-line resources. However, when I showed the standard searches and catalogues to the men who came up with the idea for the virtual gallery they felt that accessing the past should be more interesting. There was an added problem of not being able to access the internet, and this has also been an issue for some people overseas who only have access to slower speeds. The virtual gallery can be downloaded and used remotely.

There is another benefit of presenting museums on-line. If you speak to any curator they will tell you how limited they are in terms of sharing information. Every object needs to have basic information such as its accession number, material, date, culture, place of origin and how it got to the museum. This takes up quite a bit of space on a label even before any other information is shared.

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Information panel in Gallery 65 at the British Museum

When community members have asked some museums why they fail to situate Ancient Egypt in Africa as Kemet, they are often told that this is due to lack of space, or the cost implications of replacing or designing additional information panels like those above. A virtual gallery removes these obstacles and means that curators can directly share their knowledge with the public. It also means that alternative interpretations and cultural links that are physically impossible to make in the museum building can easily be presented on-line.

 

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.

curating_kemet_british_museum_Senusret_statue
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

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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.

curating_kemet_mami_wata-shrine_horniman_museum
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

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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

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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.

Egypt in Africa

Egypt in Africa at the British Museum

I recently had a couple of hours to kill and so decided to go and look again at the galleries that are curated by the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum. I was interested to look in more detail at the ways in which the museum differentiated between the ancient peoples of Kemet and Kush. So I headed to Room 65, which is named ‘Sudan, Egypt and Nubia’. The objects in this gallery come mainly from the region now known as Nubia (which incorporates southern Egypt and northern Sudan).

Geography

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Information panel in the British Museum’s Sudan, Egypt and Nubia Gallery

The panel above states the following:

This gallery tells the story of Sudan, southern Egypt, Nubia and the river Nile. A corridor for trade and the movement of people and ideas, this region was home to major civilisations. For thousands of years it was a vital link between central Africa, Egypt and the Mediterranean world.

This is the only gallery that houses material from BCE (Before Common Era) Egypt in the museum that mentions Africa. The introductory panel above very firmly associates Egypt with the Mediterranean world rather than situating it within its own continent. In fact the ‘borders’ between Kemet and Kush were not fixed in antiquity and the two regions shared much in common.

A second panel also refers to the role of the region of Nubia within Africa, but again in doing so it also ‘removes’ Egypt and Nubia from central Africa with the following statement:

The unique position of Nubia as the only reliable land route between Egypt and the African interior made it a region of great economic importance…

People

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

The painting above depicts people from Kush, who are bringing offerings to King of Kemet. It is used in Gallery 65 to show people how ‘Nubians’ were depicted by Egyptian artists. The accompanying information panel states the following:

The ancient Nubians shared a broadly common ethnic background with the Egyptians, but their physical characteristics showed variations of skin colour, physiognomy, and skeletal proportion… In Egyptian art Nubians can easily be recognised by their dark skin, feathers worn in the hair, large earrings and leopard-skin kilts…

In actual fact some depictions of the people from Kush show them with the same skin colour as Kemites. An example of this can be seen on the relief above; if you look carefully behind the second man from the left is another worshipper, who has the same skin tone that was used by Egyptian artists to depict their own people. I showed another example of this in an earlier post. Thus, not all depictions of people from Kush show them with ‘black’ skin. Like the people from Kemet their skin tones vary.

Kemet

Historically, Egyptology has differentiated between ancient representations of people who meet an oversimplified test of whether they conform to being a ‘True African’. This fails to recognise the variety of skin tones, hair types and physical features that are found among indigenous African people today. Nowhere in the galleries at the British Museum is there any attempt to situate Egypt within an African context; the only exception is the small gallery on Egyptian Coptic culture, which also displays material from the Ethiopian church. The museum houses large collections of material from many African cultures and yet these collections are never displayed together.

Ancient Egypt is included among African civilisations on the museum’s webpages that contain education resources. In the teachers’ notes it states the following:

… Ancient Egypt is generally studied under the heading of ‘great Mediterranean civilisations’ and is often forgotten that it is equally a part of the history of Africa. Much of its trade, history, wars, politics and ethnicity are bound up with the continent, and it has every right to be considered African- a powerful counter argument to those who try to belittle the cultural and technological achievements of African civilisations…

Although the statement still does not fully place the ancient culture within its rightful continent it goes further than the gallery information panels in recognising that Ancient Egypt and the Ancient Egyptians were African.