Wondrous Curiosities: Ancient Egypt at the British Museum, by Stephanie Moser

Why the Pharaoh smiled
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An Egyptian academic once took me on a tour of the British Museum, directing me around the galleries of antiquities and telling me what had been stolen from where. The histories of many of the best museum collections are filled with shameful episodes, and Stephanie Moser's fascinating study exposes to public view some very unedifying spectacles.

Wondrous Curiosities is the story of the early life of our national treasure-house and its relationship with some of its best-known exhibits. The British Museum opened its doors in 1759, and held initially just 160 items from ancient Egypt. Its early incarnation was as a vast cabinet of curiosities in which Egyptian mummies were displayed alongside other objects such as Oliver Cromwell's watch and a picture painted on a cobweb. Visitors had to apply in writing for tickets; 10 per hour were available, and only the well-connected would gain entry. There were few if any labels and visitors were hurried through by ill-informed guides. Nevertheless, the sights impressed. A 12-year-old visitor, John Coltman, wrote to his brother in 1780: "First we saw the Egyptians that had been dead 3,000 years ago. Next we saw the skull of an elephant, and the Queen of Otaheite's hat, the crown big enough to hold you, and the brim of it not much unlike the mat that lies at the bottom of our stairs."

Much of the collection was what Moser terms "serendipitous": it had been given to the museum by bequest - or conquest. Napoleon's looting of Egypt meant that the trophies of war from a British victory over the French in 1801 were unusually spectacular. Sadly, the trustees who received them seemed largely unimpressed. The museum authorities' lukewarm attitude is made clear by their dealings with one of the best-known collectors, the British consul, Henry Salt. Salt and his colourful co-collector, the Italian ex-circus strongman Belzoni, went to extraordinary lengths in recovering what are still some of the most iconic objects in the museum. The colossal bust of Ramesses II was brought - badly mutilated - by Belzoni in 1818, from Thebes, where he claims to have found it with "its face upwards, and apparently smiling on me, at the thought of being taken to England". (It's a pity that Moser doesn't have room for more of Belzoni's anecdotes - his exploits are truly eye-watering.) These, and many other treasures, were offered to the museum at what Salt considered, and Moser seems to agree, was a knockdown rate. But the trustees wrangled over the costs for six years, eventually reducing the price to £2,000 (they had just paid £35,000 for the Elgin Marbles) - a deal which was the subject of a later parliamentary inquiry.

Another painful footnote is the history of a statue of the same Pharaoh, this time from ancient Memphis. It was offered as a gift in 1835, but the trustees discovered it would cost £5,000 to transport. It was proposed that perhaps it should be cut up in order to ship it more cheaply - or that, in fact, only the head was worth having and, maybe, should just be taken off on its own. Fortunately the statue never made it to the museum.

Moser makes a cogent and compelling case that, throughout its early history, the British Museum's attitude to its ancient Egyptian artefacts reinforced one basic message: that the story of the ancient world was one of a rise from primitive beginnings in Egypt to the classical perfection of ancient Greece. The story, in other words, of the triumph of Western art. Ancient Egypt was used as a yardstick against which Greek achievements could be measured. Thomas Nichols, author of A Handy-book of the British Museum (1870), is more positive than most in his appraisal of the Egyptian statuary - often characterised as unnatural, stiff, ugly or monstrous - but even he characterises it as childlike, and his judgment on the face of the Sphinx deems it an "ideal of the African type... the poor lentil-eating African sculptures seem to have expressed in this one countenance all the possibilities of their strong and patient race."

The public's attitude to ancient Egyptian artefacts is summed up by Moser as "bipolar, in that visitors either loved or hated them". But is it fair to hold the British Museum responsible for those visitors who failed to see ancient Egypt's worth? Moser presents, by the weight of her evidence and each carefully nuanced phrase, a convincing picture of an institution in which - in the early years, at least - the Egyptian antiquities were badly presented in ill-lit and overcrowded chambers, uncontextualised, and contrasted unfavourably with the classical Greek and Roman exhibits. She sets this against the efforts of other national museums, the Louvre's 1818 gallery decorated in the Egyptian style, or popular exhibitions, such as those of Belzoni, whose 1821 exhibition reconstructed chambers from an Egyptian tomb. There was an enormous popular appetite for ancient Egypt which was not best served by our first national museum.

As the 19th century progressed, the picture changed. The excavation of tombs meant new types of objects on the collectors' market - domestic and everyday items, which shifted the museum's focus away from the colossal and strange. A more rounded, positive image of ancient Egyptian life, one less predicated on an idea of the alien and "other", came into view. Moser's account closes in the 1880s, with the founding of the first university position in Egyptology and the beginning of a new era. But that early legacy, she says, is with us still: "It was impossible to eradicate the images already created by the museum. The power of the museum's early exhibitions on ancient Egypt is evidenced by the fact that their legacy is maintained in current representations... we continue to express awe at the wondrous curiosities, colossal monstrosities... because we are expected to - the representations have instructed us to do so." You'll never walk through the Great Court in quite the same way again.