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

 

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 http://shipwheelcattle.com/?p=2032 ‘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

egypt_in_afric_informationpanel_2
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

egypt_in_africa_tomb_of_Sobekhotep_painting
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.