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Egypt at the Horniman Museum

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Behind the Scenes of Mobilising Collections at the Horniman Museum

By Alice Stevenson, on 30 May 2024

Hello everyone! We are Federica and Chloë and we are so excited to share further details about the collections review we are carrying out, which is an integral aspect of the AHRC-funded project Mobilising Collections Histories for Institutional Change: Egypt at the Horniman Museum (MCHIC). The collections review is a pioneering exploration into a previously overlooked group of objects at the Horniman Museum: the Egyptian Collection. Our analysis looks at archaeological objects such as pre-dynastic artefacts from 5000 years ago and extends beyond them to encompass more recent acquisitions, such as 1990s women’s apparel. The focus of the review is to elevate documentation standards and craft a social history of the collection with a critical lens.

Within the wider project team, we are a small group of just three people carrying out the collections review, each channelling the expertise gained from our different academic backgrounds. Dr Alice Williams serves both as a researcher and our project supervisor. We, Federica Falchi and Chloë Tayali, are collections volunteers (previously also Ikram Ghabriel) and we are incredibly excited to be contributing to a project aligned to our own professional values. Of course, we are supported by the excellent collections care and management team at the Horniman.

With the Horniman Museum’s history spanning over a century, certain historic approaches to the collections have resulted in some Egyptian artefacts being removed from their data. One of our primary aims is to reestablish these links, and in doing so, we aspire to forge connections between contemporary communities and the artefacts we review.

As we examine the objects, we assess their condition and identify those requiring conservation or those that are suitable for display or handling. Additionally, we update the database, which does not only benefit the museum, but also researchers and all others that browse the collection online, making accessible objects that could previously only be seen in person.

Reviewing the Egyptian collection involves several tasks. In the day-to-day work of MCHIC, we carefully access, unpack and pack items in the museum stores. All artefacts are handled with care to ensure their preservation. Assessing the condition and origin of the objects we review is also crucial: in a way, we act as history detectives working to connect them with their origins. We also measure and inspect objects for alternative IDs or markings: these have the potential to reveal insights into their provenance. Visual documentation is another priority. Photos complement object reviews and offer immediate preservation benefits, becoming powerful tools for engaging the wider public once uploaded to the Horniman’s website.

As with everything else, technology plays a significant role in managing collections. At the Horniman, we use Mimsy XG as a centralised system to store photos of and information about objects. This includes fundamental details like provenance, historical context, descriptions, measurements, and associated hierarchies if considering groups of objects. This centralised system is key to the cataloguing process, facilitating a comprehensive and interconnected understanding of the Egyptian artefacts within the museum’s collection.

Mimsy XG is a new software to both of us, easy to adapt to but taking a little effort to become expert in. It is well suited to a project such as MCHIC and to a collection such as the Horniman’s, as it has capacity for multiple versions of a single entry. We may have a different opinion of an object than the professional that looked at it 10 or 30 years ago. Recording our newer observation and adding it to the database means that whoever looks at the object has multiple perspectives to draw from if needed.

Federica Falchi

My name is Fede Falchi, and I joined MCHIC as Egyptian Collections Volunteer in August last year after my graduation from SOAS University of London with a BA in History of Art and Languages and Cultures.

My academic pursuits revolve around themes of curatorial activism and contemporary curatorial and collections management practices. Central to both my personal and academic explorations are the guiding principles of decolonial theories: these frameworks are paramount in expanding my perspective beyond Eurocentrism, fostering a critical understanding of post-colonial dynamics.

As an incoming MA Museum Studies student at UCL, I was drawn to volunteer for MCHIC as it constitutes a unique opportunity to immerse myself in collections management, while fostering critical thinking under expert guidance. Taking part in the collection review of Egyptian artefacts at the Horniman museum has provided me with the chance to meaningfully contribute to the documentation and therefore preservation of these objects, deepening my understanding of Egyptian society in both ancient and modern times.

Chloe Tayali

My background is in architecture, which I studied as an undergraduate at Cambridge before working at the commercial firm AHMM as a level 7 architectural apprentice. While practicing architecture I became interested in socially engaged architecture and came to recognise that my favourite community-building projects were centred on culture instead of design. This realisation prompted a rewarding career change.

In the year since I’ve joined the cultural sector I have been a learning intern at the V&A, a project assistant at ArtExplora and held both cataloguing and research roles at Historic England. I am also studying socially engaged practice on a museums studies course at the University of Leicester.

As an existing volunteer at the Horniman, before joining this project I had already gained a deep respect for the museum’s ongoing decolonial practice in collaboration with both local communities and global communities previously impacted by the museum. I am privileged to be gaining experience surrounded by conscientious practitioners from whom I am learning the ethics, practicalities and standards of museum work.

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!
  4. Episode 4: Missed Translations

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 reflections 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