I dearly love to travel. And whenever I’m making plans for a trip (because I am one of those people who tends to make a plan for each day of the trip), I usually include a visit to whatever museum(s) happen to be there. In light of our current circumstances, I have found myself reminiscing about my past visits to these museums and thinking more critically about my visits. One of the most interesting and thought-provoking ones was my visit to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. I think almost all of us had that ancient Egypt obsession when we were kids – for me, it entailed toting around a huge gold Egyptology book for kids, drawing pyramids with imagined traps inside to deter grave robbers, studying hieroglyphics, and promising myself that one day I would go to see the pyramids.
So you can imagine the depths of my delight when I had the chance to travel to Egypt and plan my visit to the Egyptian Museum. Nearly stuffed to the rafters with ancient Egyptian artifacts (so full, in fact, that newly-discovered artifacts are often put back into the ground with their location recorded in order to avoid having to find storage for yet another ancient object), what surprised me was that the Egyptian Museum was almost a monument to the history of Egyptology itself. Before I even entered the museum, I noticed the monument to Auguste Mariette and other prominent Egyptologists of the twentieth century. Almost all of these Egyptologists were not Egyptian, but rather European, many of whom were either French or British. Unsurprising, given Egypt’s history with these two nations. The architecture of the museum itself also has classical Western influences, with the ionic columns and Egyptian-stylized muses adorning the entryway.
A view of the interior of the Egyptian Museum
Once I entered the museum after waiting in the incredibly long line outside the gates, I was struck by the vastness of the hall before me and the seemingly endless array of artifacts. Mounted unobtrusively on a column – it is very easy to miss – was a very sad replica of the Rosetta Stone.
Rosetta Stone replica
Thin and less than half the size of the real one, this replica was an unimpressive imitation of the real thing and served as a reminder – to me, at least – of the extensive collection the British Museum has of artifacts that are culturally significant to nations around the world. I continued to make my way through the museum, which is organized chronologically. Many of the artifacts, as I progressed deeper and deeper into the museum, actually did not have any labels accompanying them. Those that did, I found, looked as though they had been there since the time of the Egyptologists who are remembered outside in the monument with Auguste Mariette. They were also just simply that – a label. No interpretation or description of cultural significance; just a short and to the point description of what the object is and where it was found. To be fair, there were some labels that were more updated with fuller descriptions. The small exhibit dedicated to Akhenaten, I remember, was fascinating. However, I do remember being a bit frustrated by all those artifacts – and even mummies – who sat quietly in their cases in a dusty corner without any description of what (or who) they were. It is as though the museum is rather more like a storage space that guests can wander through, or as though it was simply put on display before having to quickly move on to prepare space for the next artifact.
I remember having the distinct impression that it was as if many artifacts had only just been discovered and put out for guests to see, giving rise to my feeling that the museum is not only providing a history of ancient Egypt but also a history of Egyptology and the discovery of these fascinating artifacts. The many crates left lying in various corners (or even in the middle of some of the galleries) whose ancient contents one could only guess at only contributed to this sense.
Some of the crates that were scattered around gallery floors. Perhaps it is in preparation to move them to the Grand Egyptian Museum?
While I certainly had a wonderful visit, I also felt that the Egyptian Museum was long overdue for an update. Which is why I was delighted to learn that the Grand Egyptian Museum is in the works and will open soon (although this opening date has been delayed a few times it seems). We drove past it on our way to the pyramids and I was in awe of the sheer size of the building as well as the highly stylized pyramid-inspired architecture. The Tutankhamun collection will be moved there and many artifacts that have never been on display will soon be appreciated by visitors.
I wonder, however, if visits to the Egyptian Museum will dwindle if the Tutankhamun exhibit moves out of it to the Grand Egyptian Museum. Hopefully, as the efforts to open the Grand Egyptian Museum continue, there will also be work done towards updating the original Egyptian Museum. The museum’s central location in Tahrir Square and its bright red-hued building makes it a bit difficult to sweep off to the side and simply forget about it. To do so would in some respects be the erasure of Egypt’s complex history of the study of its own past.
Summertime is often the season when I, as I am sure many of our readers as well, will go and explore various museums. Seeing as how I am from Virginia, this usually means going to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts or the (newly renamed) Virginia Museum of History & Culture. One of my absolute favorite hidden gems in Richmond, however, is Agecroft Hall. A beautiful Tudor-era English manor house that was brought over piece-by-piece in the early twentieth century from its original place in England, Agecroft Hall is a unique blend of early modern architecture with modern conveniences (such as closets and radiators).
The tours that visitors are treated to at Agecroft are likewise an interesting mix of early modern English history and the estate’s twentieth-century history of how it made its way from England to the US due to the popular desires to have European-style homes. T.C. Williams, Jr., the man who purchased Agecroft and had it brought over to Richmond, actually wanted to create a kind of Tudor-style neighborhood surrounding Agecroft Hall (although this didn’t ultimately happen, Agecroft’s neighbor is likewise an early modern English-style home). Some visitors, I think, will be unsure of how to feel about a very historic English home being taken from its original grounds and brought over and adapted to fit 1920s standards of living; I know I at least was not sure what to think of this initially. However, Agecroft Hall was on the verge of collapse due to mining in the surrounding English countryside and had fallen into disrepair. So while extra closet spaces and radiators are perhaps not quite what is usually done in the maintaining of an historic house – indeed, nor is changing the entire floor plan, as Williams chose to do – at least Agecroft Hall was given a kind of second life as the home-turned-museum in Richmond, Virginia. This choice was also not made without much thought and care – Agecroft Hall only left England with the approval of Parliament after a debate.
For me, it is also so interesting to think of how much conservation and preservation work has developed from the time when Agecroft Hall was brought over to the US to today. I think that while the methods perhaps are not what would have been done now, that the spirit of wanting to ensure the survival – at least in some capacity – of a historically significant building is something that is in common between past and present efforts.
Gardens at Agecroft Hall, modeled after the gardens of Hampton Court Palace
The museum also is such a wonderful opportunity to learn about and experience these kinds of historic houses that usually one would have to fly overseas to Europe in order to see. As my area of focus is early modern England, you can imagine my delight when I first went to Agecroft Hall. The majority of the museum is staged just as an early modern home would have been in its day, giving visitors an idea of what life in a manor house like Agecroft Hall would have been like for both servants and the family. Rich tapestries and wood furniture darkened with age; portraits of Elizabethan courtiers; a curiosity cabinet; herbals and King James I’s treatise on the evils of witchcraft; and, most exciting of all, a pardon with Elizabeth I’s own beeswax seal. These are only some of the wonderful artifacts on display at this fascinating historic house and I know I can’t wait to go visit again as soon as I can.