“A museum without a mummy,” according to Antoine Vivenel, “is not a museum.” Along with a couple of other apparent ‘must haves’, an ancient Greek pot or a Roman statue or two, mummies and/or other ancient Egyptian funerary objects do seem to be everywhere. A project under the auspices of the International Committee for Egyptology, an UNESCO committee, estimates that there are over two million ancient Egyptian artefacts in some 850 public collections in at least 69 countries around the world. This is the West’s legacy of centuries of large scale removal of antiquities from archaeological sites in Egypt and Sudan to satisfy what has come to be known as “Egyptomania”.

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Great North Museum, Newcastle (England).

Fascination with ancient Egypt stretches far back. Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian writing in the 5th century BC – and said to be the first Historian, gave a rather fanciful account of Egypt. But, some of our ideas today are no less fanciful. Ancient Egypt is frequently (mis)represented as the origins of civilisation, not just for Europe and the Mediterranean, but beyond. In the main reading room of the Library of Congress (Washington, D.C.), for example, a mural by Edwin Blashfield created in 1895 suggests that Egypt was the first civilisation and America the latest. This notion of the Egyptian civilisation giving rise to all others is to some extent what lies behind Antoine Vivenel’s remark I quoted above.

Although very few museum curators would today agree with Vivenel, and rightly so, it has to be said that this is certainly in part because those Museums that would want Egyptian objects already have them, and those that do not have probably resigned themselves to the situation that the removal of ancient artefacts from Egypt is now strictly forbidden. Of course this does not stop looting, but no respectable museum would buy objects of dubious provenance.

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Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter (England).

Antoine Vivenel was a very wealthy architect and collector of Classical antiquities and Renaissance art. In 1839 he donated his vast and impressive collection to the city of his birth, Compiègne in Picardy, France. Since then, and partly because of the quality of the existing collection, the Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie de Compiègne has had a number of other substantial donations from private collectors. And today the museum, now known as Musée Antoine Vivenel, is the regional repository for objects from local archaeological excavations.

What we see in the Musée Antoine Vivenel is typical of many museums of its time and type. And that is, museums that started out as (often private) collections of Egyptian and Classical antiquities together with more modern Western art. Some of these are simply “Fine Arts” museums, others are “Art and Archaeology” museums. Only in rare instances are the art and archaeology collections split into separate museums. The art and archaeology in these museums then get displayed chronologically, starting with ancient Egypt and Classical Greece and Rome, leading up to through the Middle Ages to contemporary art. Visitors are guided in a particular way, in some museums this is more subtle than in others, so that you witness this “evolution” of art. What I always enjoy is the way in which the archaeology is often placed in the basement, with bare brick or or stone walls, in stark contrast to the more refined spaces above them.

Museums in different nations are then each telling their own narrative of the progress of civilisation – through the “evolution of art”, starting in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and ending with more recent and contemporary collections of paintings and sculpture. These are the ways in which museums reinforce the popular myth that ancient Egypt was the first civilisation … but what about those ancient cultures in the Far East, Central America? These are some of the very issues that some museums are now confronting in radically redesigned galleries and presentations of their Egyptian collections.

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Mummy display in the Torquay Museum, Toquay (England).

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Mummy and coffin of a boy, aged between 2 and 4. Toquay Museum, Torquay (England).

There is, however, another element to Antoine Vivenel’s remark. Our fascination with Ancient Egypt is not only about where ancient Egyptians have been placed in the grand scheme of things. We are truly and genuinely fascinated by the Egyptian mummies. And have been for centuries. Just as today young children are drawn to the richly decorated coffins of ancient Egyptians and displays of their contents, so to when the first mummies were brought back to Europe from Egypt they drew large audiences. Travelling exhibitions of King Tut’s funerary paraphernalia are sure to draw record visitor numbers.

Various writers have tried to account for this fascination, most of the suggested theories focusing on our attitude towards death and the afterlife. Other writers have suggested that for us boring Westerners ancient Egyptians were the exotic beings we wish we were. Whatever the reasons, people of all ages greatly enjoy looking at ancient Egyptian artefacts.

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Mummification display at the Great North Museum in Newcastle (England).