‘Answering the calls of the living’: collaborative practice in archaeology and ancient Egyptian daily life exhibitions in Western museums.
University of Southampton, School of Humanities,
Western museum displays of Egyptology are in need of an overhaul. The study of the ancient Egyptian past and the methods by which museums represent this past are affected by over two hundred years of Western tradition. This tradition, founded in a time of nation-building, led to the establishment of a narrow set of understandings of ancient Egypt. Focused on elite individuals, death and religious practices, early Egyptological scholarship and museum display created an environment in which the public could do little more than stare in awe. While distancing ancient Egypt from the familiar, Western ownership acted as a symbol of power within eighteenth century politics. Claiming the world’s greatest ancient civilisation for its own, the West divorced living Egyptians from this heritage through powerful Orientalising discourse which denied them links with the ancient culture since the coming of Islam. Today, the strength of these first associations is still evident in Egyptology museum displays, which prioritise elite lifestyles and death above more accessible daily life narratives and continue to ignore Egyptian perspectives on the past. This thesis, therefore, presents new strategies for the exhibition of ancient Egypt in Western museums that can cut through traditions of exclusion and incorporate daily life and contemporary perspectives into understandings of Egypt. I begin by discussing the theoretical context of collaborative archaeology and the historical position of Western Egyptology display. From here I disclose my three-part methodology. Part one involves collaboration with the modern Egyptian community to address perceptions of ancient Egypt and to promote Egyptian solutions to outdated Western modes of Egyptology display. Part two extends the collaborative approach to incorporate Western museum visiting communities’ understanding of Egypt, ancient and modern, and incorporate further suggestions for museological change. Part three contextualises the Egyptian and museum visitors’ views through a detailed visual analysis of the state of current Western Egyptology display. The results of these three areas of analysis are brought together to propose an emotive, multi-voiced, cross-temporal, creative methodology as the means by which a disciplinary shift can be achieved. Centred on the unification of art and artefact, ancient and modern, Egypt and West, life and death, the incorporation of contemporary Egyptian art into Egyptology display is offered as a route out of museological stasis that acknowledges the benefit of diversifying the voices involved in the interpretation of the past, finds resonance
with the lives of Egyptians and Western museum visitors today, and is in-keeping with the ethics of twenty-first century museology.
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