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New light on ancient Egypt: Helen Strudwick, Curator of the Egyptian galleries at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, explains the new refurbishment at the museum and the opportunities it has afforded.

WHEN WILL THE EGYPTIAN GALLERIES be open again?' has been a recurring question at the Fitzwilliam for the last eighteen months, emphasizing both the importance of the collection and the abiding appeal of ancient Egypt. During this period a major project of redisplay has been in progress, completed at the end of May, when the galleries reopen.

Egypt is often seen as an unchanging culture, with beautiful statues all looking rather similar. The new displays will encourage visitors to recognize that things did change over time; and, rather than just being thrilled to see a mummy, they will have the chance to learn why the Egyptians went to such great lengths to preserve their dead and provide for them so lavishly.

For many people, it is the Egyptians' belief in death and the afterlife that fascinates them; one of the first questions many visitors ask is 'where is the mummy?'. People often believe the Egyptians were obsessed with death; in fact it would be more true to say they were preoccupied with life and how to perpetuate it.

So, when the new displays were planned, a decision was taken to restrict the funerary displays to just half a gallery. Light levels in this part are kept low, with no natural light, to give a sense of the dark environment of a tomb. The displays in this area also emphasize the archaeological context of the objects.

So, for example, the stunningly beautiful mummy case of Nakhtefmut will be displayed together with the artefacts found in his burial, and a text panel will explain their relationship.

In the other half of this gallery the emphasis is on the lives of the ancient Egyptians. The climate in Egypt is so dry that many made of organic materials have survived. Wooden furniture and linen textiles are displayed, along with jewellery and other adornments, and a selection of the pottery. Techniques of sculpting and writing equipment will feature in another display, and there will be cases showing objects used in religious, magical and ritual contexts.

The sarcophagus lid of Ramesses III, long familiar to visitors, still provides a dramatic first view of the collection as for visitors approaching from the Greek gallery, and it forms the central focus of the second gallery. The displays here emphasize the importance of the king in people's lives. People often think that true portraiture did not exist in Egyptian art, but in each king's reign there seems to have been an accepted way he was to be depicted, in relief or sculpture, which also influenced the way that non-royal people were shown. This is a feature of the so-called Amarna period, but it can be seen at other times too. For example, the rulers during the Twenty-fifth Dynasty (c.750-656 BC) were Nubians from further south in Africa, and many people during this period were depicted with Nubian features. In contrast, the rulers of the following dynasty seem to have taken a conscious decision to base their works of art on the 'classic Egyptian' style of earlier era, particularly the late Old Kingdom (c. 24502200 BC) and the Twelfth Dynasty (c. 1976-1794 BC).

The project has enabled a new approach to the way the Egyptian collection is displayed. As well as replacing the old display cases, an enthusiastic team of conservators has been undertaking a major investigation and treatment of the objects.

Many of the antiquities in the collection have been on view almost continuously since they came to the museum and conservators have had no opportunity to check their condition for many years. For example, the vividly decorated coffin set of Nespawershefyt, which came into the collection in 1822, has, in effect, been trapped inside its display case for the last forty years. Now experts have had a chance to look at the coffins in more detail, to check on the condition and take any remedial action needed, and also to learn more about how the coffins were constructed and the materials used to produce the brilliant decoration.

In addition, many new objects are being displayed for the first time and these have also been closely re-examined. New microscopes have allowed the smallest details to be checked under magnification. Some objects have also been X-rayed or CT-scanned at Addenbrooke's Hospital. In the process, new treatments have been developed to deal with sensitive materials like unfired clay and linen.

Within the galleries, there are pictures of sites in Egypt to give visitors a sense of the environment from where the objects have come. There is also computer access to more information about the exhibits, including the sites from where they were excavated and links to other museum collections, such as the British Museum and the Petrie Museum, which house objects from the same context.

Helen Strudwick The Fitzwilliam Museum Trumpington St, Cambridge CB2 IRB Tek 01223 332900.
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Author:Strudwick, Helen
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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