Updating Tradition: Egyptian Galleries, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge - Museums Association

Updating Tradition: Egyptian Galleries, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Jane Morris finds the Fitzwilliam has gone for evolution rather than revolution in its reworked Egyptian displays
Jane Morris
The old Ancient Egypt galleries at the Fitzwilliam Museum were a classic of their kind: two middling-sized rooms filled with hundreds of objects ranging from tiny pieces of great antiquity and beauty to some truly show-stopping sculptures and sarcophaguses.

The museum stressed in its room guide that items were chosen for their aesthetic value and art historical significance rather than their archaeological importance. The trouble was, without a degree in ancient history, you didn't have a clue what was going on. The 1960s formica cases (designed by a keeper) had a presence of their own. This being the Fitzwilliam, it would be daft to expect a revolution.

Evolution is all in a museum that has tended to stand for 'traditional' values such as rigorous scholarship, object-rich displays (full of top-quality pieces), and light-to-non-existent interpretation so that the artefacts 'speak for themselves'. There has always been a sense that this museum leans closer to the erudition of the university that owns it, than the public who may want to know more about what it offers.

Following the major refurbishment of 2004, the museum has started reorganising displays and putting in more accessible interpretation. It still hasn't moved from its object-rich, rather aesthetic approach with all the opportunities these provide for the knowledgeable to compare and contrast - and it is not certain that it should.

This is, after all, Cambridge, and the museum has to satisfy a lot of academics, as well as picky students who tend to howl 'dumbing down' even faster than the tutors. But it has also started to present a more obvious bridge with local people. This means more interpretation, training warders and volunteers to answer questions, and increasing the number of outreach programmes.

So within this framework, how far have the Ancient Egypt galleries gone? In one sense, not far. The museum has spent its £1.5m on a 130 sq metre space. There are still lots of objects on show - the total of about 1,1000 is more than in the past - and the way everything looks is still clearly important. The cases are new, but remain large glass expanses with tiers of objects within them. There is still a sense, like the rest of the Fitzwilliam, that it has a foot firmly in the museums of the past.

But to stop here would be tremendously unfair. Careful and clever thinking has gone into these displays, and in many ways they are a big step forward from the old galleries. For a start, there are stories: an overarching narrative in each room and stories within individual cases.

There is much more of a sense of drama in the way the largest pieces are displayed, as well as more explanations, and the curators have dealt well with a difficult problem: the fact that, thanks to the refurbishment, these end rooms are now approached from two different angles.

The two old rooms have been subtly divided into three: the two 'entrance' rooms with windows devoted to the 'living' world of the Egyptians, and a third, darker, atmospheric space used for the funerary archaeology. One room deals with the story of the kings and queens of Egypt through their images in objects such as sculptures, amulets and seals.

For everyone disappointed by the tiny mention of Tutankhamun, there will be plenty who are delighted by the magnificent granite image of Rameses III, which at seven tonnes is too heavy to move out of the room. But there are also some gorgeous tiny pieces, such as an unfinished carnelian sculpture of Akhenaten kissing his wife Nefertiti, their three young daughters caught up in their arms around them.

If that deals quite well with basic history, the next room deals with themes of Egyptian life. Six cases cover: traditional Egyptian religion; the arrival of Greek and Roman religions, Christianity and Islam; ritual and magic; household items such as cooking pots; carving, painting and writing; and personal adornment. The wall text in each case, and individual object labels, are all written in a straightforward, accessible style.

But the highlight is the funerary archaeology area. Like the Egyptian life room, this starts with prehistory, but goes beyond the traditional end of many Egyptian displays, to look at the effect of Greek, Roman, Christian and Islamic burial rituals as they were laid on top of the older ancient Egyptian traditions. For at least some visitors, the star object here must be the extraordinary, 30BC, pinky-red, painted-linen mummy featuring a naturalistic, lifelike painting of a young man's face with a Roman laurel around his hair. But on his body, more crudely painted than the older sarcophagus, is all the familiar ancient Egyptian iconography.

This room, like the first, is chronological with a central case demonstrating how coffins and sarcophaguses evolved. The museum has carried out analytical research that will soon be published and used to enrich these displays; indeed, much of the money in the refurbishment has been used in conservation. Newly-conserved objects, including rare papyrus, will be added to the room temporarily, and there are also plans to install two computer terminals offering more in-depth information.

Is the display a success? Like everything, it will depend on who you are. There were a surprisingly large number of older teenagers in the galleries on a boiling hot day. They seemed to be enjoying it - and not just the sarcophaguses - though for my taste it could still do with more interpretation.

One of the biggest drawbacks of object-heavy displays is placing the object labels: the Fitzwilliam has gone for a numbering system, with labels at thigh height on an angle in the cases. This can make the match between object and label a bit of a hunt - but they are written well enough to make you want to read them.

Any difficulties might be rectified with some inexpensive room handouts or some re-ordering of labels. But these galleries are still a big improvement on the past: intelligent, elegantly displayed, and packing a surprising amount into a relatively small space.

Jane Morris writes about museums and galleries and is a judge of the European Museum of the Year Award

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