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Egypt at the Horniman Museum

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Introducing Mobilizing Collections at the Horniman museum

By Alice Stevenson, on 14 August 2023

There are around 2000 artefacts from Egypt in the Horniman Museum collection, a museum in south-east London. Despite being a popular part of the public displays, the collection has never been studied in any detail. Our project, funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, is exploring the collection, its history and significance.   This will include not just archaeological objects from colonial era British-led projects excavated by Egyptian teams, but also more recent Egyptian material, such as a large collection of women’s clothing and jewellery collected in the 1990s.

A Photograph of a museum display case containing ancient Egyptian objects at the Horniman Museum, including a sarcophagus lid, mummified animal and ancient boat.

Current (2023) display of part of the ancient Egyptian collection at the Horniman Museum on the balcony of the World Cultures Gallery.

Egyptian collections are amongst the most popular collections for schoolchildren to learn about, for development of displays, and for public consumption in museum shops, online, and event programming. Yet these activities usually rely on an imagined Egypt, repeating out-dated tropes and drawing from a small proportion of the substantial collections held by institutions. Mobilising Collections is therefore not just a cataloguing project. It is also an examination of how the collection is and could be better used and understood across the museum from the shop to education. And a key part of this work is re-centring Egyptian voices, histories and landscapes into these engagements.

1994.350. Image of Buraq, printed in Al-Ghouriya, Cairo by Library and Printing Press El-Mashhad El-Husseini. Buraq is a mythical being that took the Prophet Mohammed to meet God, according to the Quran

1994.350. Image of Buraq, printed in Al-Ghouriya, Cairo by Library and Printing Press El-Mashhad El-Husseini. Buraq is a mythical being that took the Prophet Mohammed to meet God, according to the Quran

Heba Abd el Gawad and Alice Williams are the core researchers on the team.  Alice will be working through the collection, researching its history, identifying key artefacts and improving their documentation. Heba is based in Cairo and will building on partnerships established during a previous project that involved the Horniman, Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage, working with new partners to make new connections through the Horniman’s collection using Alice’s collections review. This includes a new temporary exhibition, All Eyes on Her, launching in 2024. This exhibition responds to the predominance of women’s items in the Horniman’s historic collection and is a longer-term community collaboration. To this end, All Eyes on Her explores what it means to be a woman in public, drawing together archaeological and more recent collections with new acquisitions to demonstrate the potential of collections like the Horniman to tell fresh and relevant narratives. A podcast, Only Collections in the Building, explores the processes and challenges of this part of the project:

  1. Episode 1: Unpinning Colonialism
  2. Episode 2: I don’t accept Horniman’s gift!
  3. Episode 3: Money! Money! Money!

While collection and communities are in dialogue, Project Investigator Alice Stevenson and  Co-I Johanna Zetterström-Sharp will hold a series of conversations with museum staff across the Horniman Museum to understand how Egypt is used in their area of work and how the collections review can inform new approaches. As a small to moderately-sized collection, like many collections of Egypt in the UK and abroad, how the Horniman uses and understands its collection can contribute to wider conversations in the museum sector.

Over the next two years we will be posting on project updates, as well as objects, histories and critical refections as the work unfolds. This will include community conversations held in London, Cairo, Nile Delta, and Luxor. We will explore questions on how we, the Horniman, and wider museum sector can better respond to and reflect what is important for Egyptian and North African communities of descent.

For some background to our work see the below:

Abd el-Gawad, H. and Stevenson, A. 2021. Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage: using comic art for multidirectional storytelling. Journal of Social Archaeology 21(1): 121–145.

Stevenson, A. and Williams, A. 2022. Blind spots in Museum Anthropology. Ancient Egypt in ethnographic museums. Museum Anthropology 45(2): 96–110.

A picture of a early 20th century building and clock tower of the Horniman Museum

Photograph of the outside of the Horniman Museum

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