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Egypt at the Horniman Museum



(Un)pinning (Anti)colonialism

by Heba Abd el Gawad and Johanna Zetterström-Sharp 

31 January 2024

How can a small packet of veil pins from the late 1980s challenge the way Egypt is represented in a museum like the Horniman? In this blog we unpack them to tell powerful stories of resistance and revolution.

Packaged pins at the Horniman. Horniman Museum and Gardens, accession number 1991.460

The Egyptian collection at the Horniman Museum and Gardens ranges from archaeological to more contemporary Egyptian belongings. Since 2021, we have been researching a large collection of women’s clothing and jewellery collected in the late 1980s, probably from Cairo. This collection is unusual; rarely are the everyday lives of women part of the narratives constructed about Egypt in the West, and it is likewise uncommon to find more contemporary Egyptian items in museum collections. This led us to develop a project called All Eyes on Her! centring the lived experiences of Egyptian women, both in the stories that are told at the Horniman, and in the way the existing collections are understood. The title All Eyes on Her! reflects to the experience of being a woman in public in Egypt, and the project has been codeveloped with Egyptian women and women-led initiatives in London, Cairo, the Delta, and Luxor.

All Eyes on Her!

All Eyes on Her! draws on the Horniman’s ancient and more recent collection with new acquisitions from Egypt. It explores everyday resistance of Egyptian women to social, cultural, and political injustices, reclaiming their position in public, and their role in revolutions past and present. The project will feature a temporary exhibition in the Horniman’s World Gallery between 2024-2027, a series of digital interventions, and community events in London, Cairo, and Luxor.

All Eyes on Her! is intended to examine how collections can be used to bring social justice and inclusion to underrepresented groups among indigenous communities. It aims to offer an ethical community centred collaboration model challenging existing museum co-curation and indigenous collaborative practices. This includes collaborations with artists, such as Dina Zaitoun and Hanaa El Dagham, and takes a creative approach to visual story-telling with objects. We want to challenge not only the knowledge relating to the collection that is prioritised and the stories that are platformed, but also some of the engrained structural ways we have historically approached exhibition making and working in partnership.

A key task for us is researching the collection and sharing what we know and find out with our community partners, as well as being transparent and open about how the collection is used and cared for at the Horniman. This draws on Johanna’s experience working for the Horniman as a curator for the last 10 years, before coming to UCL. We want to tell stories that are relevant and relatable to our partners, as well as understand where current practice does not meet their needs or expectations relating to the way their own heritage is managed and represented. We are sharing what we have learnt through this process in our podcast series, Only Collections in the Building, where we will ask what it means in practice to put people before collections by sharing our experience working together on All Eyes on Her!

Whilst the collection of 1980s women’s clothing and other items inspired this project, we actually know very little about it. The collection was formally acquired by the museum in 1990, catalogued by a former curator Nathalie Tobert. However, we have not been able to discover who initially brought the objects together, and why.  The collection has not received much attention since its accession; as far as we know it has never been displayed. Yet, it is, as expected, numbered, catalogued, and neatly packed and boxed up at the museum’s stores in North Greenwich. The stores, called the Study Collections Centre by Horniman staff, are where the Egyptian collections that are not on display are located and where most of our collection handling and research has taken place.

The Pins

In September 2023 we were working through this collection, putting together a short list of items that will be displayed for All Eyes on Her!, and taking photographs to be shared with community partners in Egypt. It was here that we came across a neatly wrapped set of coloured pins (Fig.1). These are the typical pins used by veiled Egyptian women to fix their scarfs in the late 1980s to 2000s. Today, much smaller and less visible pins are more fashionable (Fig. 2). Scarf pins are usually sold by street vendors outside Cairo’s Metro stations and inside female only carriages.

The Horniman’s set of pins is not particularly special. They are not made in Egypt, nor do they hold any aesthetic, artistic, or cultural significance. They were likely acquired to go with a set of scarves in the collection to complete the ‘Egyptian veiled woman look’ as understood by the collector. The Horniman catalogue information did not reveal much,  describing the pins as “a set of scarf pins wrapped in a bundle of paper and wrapped with string…They have plastic faux pearl heads, three each in blue, black, pink and white”. Hinting at the likelihood that there are more stories to be told however, the description ends “there may be more pins inside the packet.”

Figure 2: Various shaped and sized pins used to fix scarves as sold outside Metro stations in Cairo. Photograph by Heba Abd el Gawad.

Unpinning the Catalogue

When museum objects are catalogued like this, decisions are made about what kind of information is most important to record to best care for the collections and what expertise is needed to do this work well. In this case, the catalogue provides a visual and material description, pointing both to the importance placed on being able to identify the object correctly for research and display purposes, and the likelihood that the person cataloguing the object did not have any other expertise or associations to draw on, personal or otherwise. The decisions that are made about what information to prioritise and what expertise we need reveals who has historically been imagined as engaging with or using this information; in this case researchers and other museum professionals. Professional practices and their infrastructures (such as collections management systems) have been historically created and established to meet the needs that these users have. What a closer look at these pins can also tell us, therefore, is whose needs have not been prioritised in the same way, primarily the people whose heritage or lived experience is reflected in these collections and belongings. In this case, Egyptian women who may have worn scarfs pins just like these, or who wear similar ones today.

In the 1990s pins like these were an easy hack for fixing your scarf in place, however they later came to be symbolic of female resistance during the 2011 Egyptian revolution, when women played a significant role in the widespread public protests. During these protests, anti-revolution groups sexually harassed female protestors to scare them off, however, women used large pins fixed to their bras for protection and to keep harassers away. This is a powerful story of how an everyday fashion item was transformed into an object of resistance during the revolution. The meanings of objects change as communities’ circumstances and needs change, yet the practices that surround museum collections regard them as though they were suspended in time, detached from life. Collections are often known institutionally through a single story that emerges out of this detachment. Single sided stories are discriminatory stories. They misrepresent communities and deny them the right to resist, reclaim, and redefine their identities within museum contexts.

Unwrapping Resistance

It was not only the pins that had the capacity to tell stories of resistance and revolution. They had been neatly wrapped in a piece of paper torn from a discarded book by the person who sold them; a common packaging style widely used by street vendors and small scale businesses in Egypt in the 1980s-90s. As we looked closer, Heba noticed a stanza from one of Egypt’s renowned poets, Ahmed Shawki, known in the Arabic-speaking world as the Prince of Poets and for his anticolonial poems. We carefully separated the packaging from the pins and unfolded the paper to read the rest of the text, finding that it was in fact torn from a secondary school text-book on Arabic literature (Fig. 3). The history of British colonialism in Egypt is taught and memorised by children in schools across the Egyptian curriculum, from Arabic literature, to history and social sciences and throughout preparatory and secondary school. Heba remembered the stanza from her own childhood.


Figure 3: Shawiki’s stanza printed on the packaging


Shawki’s stanza, printed on one side of the wrapping, had been written during his exile in Spain after being deported by British Colonial authorities for his anticolonial activism. The poem describes the violence and poverty that was the reality for many Egyptians as the British exploited their economic, agricultural, and natural assets. It portrays the brutal side of colonialism which has contributed to the making of Egyptian collections in museums, and is largely absent from the way histories of these collections are told and the collections themselves are narrated.

The other side of the packaging quotes Hafez Ibrahim,  the Poet of the Nile, and his work Rising  Prices. The poem criticises the Khedive’s economic policies and the hefty price paid by Egyptians to sustain his majesty’s spendings and luxurious life style. The Khedive was a tributary of the Ottoman Empire that invaded Egypt at the turn of the 18th century, supported by British and French troops as Egyptians struggled for independence. When Britain occupied Egypt in 1882, they did so through the Khedive, who allowed them access to the Suez canal, until 1914. Egypt only gained self-rule and complete independence in 1952. This aspect of double colonialism is rarely acknowledged in the way the colonial history of archaeological excavation rights and collecting is understood in the UK, including the lack of Egyptian autonomy over the legal and administrative policies that legitimised the global circulation of Egyptian heritage. This simple scrap of packaging is a counter archive to the history of archaeology and speaks directly to the history of the archaeological collections at the Horniman, many of which came via the Egyptian Exploration Society who benefited considerably from Britain’s particular colonial relationship with “Egyptian” heritage organisations.

Figure 4 The packaging with Hafez Ibrahim poem Rising Prices


 The packaging that has contained these everyday veil pins tells a vital story about the materiality of Egyptian resistance. It reveals the brutality and exploitation of British and Ottoman colonialism; Egyptian anticolonial activism against both colonial powers; and how these histories were reinvented to shape Egypt’s 20th century collective memory through school education. The packaging, thus, gives an otherwise absent context to the Egyptian collection at the Horniman from an Egyptian perspective, offering a counter narrative to the Horniman’s archives. This is a story of resistance that was excavated because Heba, an indigenous Egyptian women, was in the room. Arabic linguistic proficiency is not what mattered, although important. It was her ability to recollect the nuances of resistance from the everyday to the revolutionary, from street markets and personal protection, to school curricula and a deep history of anti-colonial activism. This layered experience of resistance empowered both the unwrapping and the rewriting of the stories these pins will tell.

If you would like to listen to the way this story unfolded, see Episode 1 of our podcast series, Only Collections in the Building.

Funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the Mobilising Collections for Institutional Change: Egypt at the Horniman Museum. Find out more here.