Excavating Egypt: A Q&A

Posted: January 8, 2007

Marianne Doezema, director, and Wendy Watson, curator of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, recently sat down to discuss the current exhibition, Excavating Egypt: Great Discoveries from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London. They were joined by Diana Wolfe Larkin, curatorial consultant and visiting associate professor in art history.

Marianne Doezema: Excavating Egypthas been a very exciting exhibition project for all of us on the museum staff and, of course, for our audiences. The culture of ancient Egypt seems particularly intriguing, perhaps because of the picture-based language or because of the Egyptians' elaborate practice of mummification. Whatever the reason for our fascination, the current show provides the opportunity to learn much more about ancient Egypt, which has been represented in the museum's collection since early in the twentieth century.

Wendy Watson and Diana Wolfe LarkinWendy Watson:It's true. Louise Fitz-Randolph, an alumna who taught at the College from 1892 to 1912, had a particular passion for Egyptian art and archaeology and made a concerted effort to bring Egyptian objects into the collection. She traveled to Cairo and Luxor in 1909 in order to purchase things there. The museum was also a member of the Egypt Exploration Fund, a subscription system that funded excavations. Participating institutions from many countries received a share of the finds, with the approval of the Egyptian government's Antiquities Service.

MD:How did it happen that Mount Holyoke became a participant in this program?

Diana Wolfe Larkin:Mount Holyoke was receiving literature from the Egypt Exploration Fund when Mary Dickinson paid for Mount Holyoke's membership. It was through Dickinson's gift that we became eligible to receive objects. In becoming a subscriber, Mount Holyoke joined a circle of distinguished institutions that included the museums associated with Smith College, Bryn Mawr College, Harvard University, Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, and public museums such as the Worcester Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

WW:Interestingly, Mount Holyoke was one of the first places in the United States where art history was included as a regular course in the curriculum. In 1876, the old Williston Hall became the first home for the museum's growing collection of original art, as well as for an important collection of plaster casts. Then in 1902, when the Dwight Art Memorial Building was dedicated, the collections were installed there. Art students in the early twentieth century must have been particularly captivated by the presence of actual ancient objects, to which few previous students in the U.S. would have had access. In photographs of the museum galleries at that time, you see a real emphasis on antiquities, even though the collection also included contemporary paintings like our [George] Inness and [Albert] Bierstadt landscapes. The culture of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome was then considered central to the history of Western civilization.

DWL: And at that time, the department was known as the Department of Art and Archaeology, which in itself indicates an interest in the ancient world. Ancient art was taught from actual objects, from photographs of ancient monuments, and from plaster casts.

MD:It's interesting to recall how rigorously casts were collected in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially casts of antiquities. In 1898, Samuel Parrish, the proprietor of what is today the Parrish Art Museum [in Southampton, New York] argued that plaster reproductions of the antique and Renaissance sculpture were museums' "real treasures." In Parrish's view, collections of "modern pictures" did not compare in educational worth. Casts fell from favor, of course, but in the last few decades their value for teaching has been recognized once again. So it is fortuitous that the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, which is today known for its original works of art, still retains a large portion of its cast collection. I want to thank you again, Diana, for helping us design the reinstallation of the casts when the Art Building and museum were reopened in 2002 after the major renovation and expansion. We're also in your debt for alerting us to the United States tour of the Petrie Museum exhibition. Perhaps we could now talk about Petrie's special significance in the history of archaeology.

DWL:Flinders Petrie is considered the father of modern archaeology. He was one of the first excavators to be scrupulous about recording information about where the object was found, which is crucial data for scholars. He pointed the way toward the now very refined protocols of recording the exact strata in which objects are found and in what context. Additionally, Petrie published his findings every single year. He typically spent the winter excavating and then he wrote up his report the following summer. The standard he set has become a model for modern archaeologists.

MD:I understand he was also groundbreaking in his interest in small objects of everyday life in a moment when many of his contemporaries were focused exclusively on huge stone sculptures. He recognized how revealing utilitarian artifacts could be.

DWL:I'm glad you mentioned that. Indeed, he collected pottery, stray beads, little scraps of things, everything. One of his contributions was an innovative method for establishing the chronology of a site by identifying different styles of pottery known as "seriation."

WW:Before Petrie, archaeology was almost like grave robbing. Objects were taken because they were the most appealing and intrinsically valuable. Objects that could tell us more about Egyptian life and culture were often disregarded.

MD:The current exhibition features more than 220 amazing objects from the Petrie Museum in London, but we have also developed a small companion display of related Egyptian objects from Mount Holyoke's collection.

DWL:The museum's holdings here include several dozen objects that were excavated by Petrie. I'm looking here at a relief fragment showing the head and shoulders of a male figure. It was excavated in 1898 by Petrie at the site of Dendera and went with other Egypt Exploration Fund objects first to Philadelphia. When the American Exploration Society in Philadelphia was disbanded, the objects went to a number of museums including those at Bryn Mawr and Mount Holyoke.

WW:One of those objects is a clay offering tray. It has been in storage for a long time, and so I'm delighted that this exhibition provides the opportunity to put it on view.

DWL:That tray, also from Dendera, has depicted on it little offerings that would have helped the owner along in the afterlife. We see parts of an ox and loaves of bread along with drainage channels suggesting offerings of cool water. This pottery tray relates to a grander object that is on permanent display in the museum, a limestone offering table that would perhaps have been made for someone of a higher station.

MD:What are the highlights among other Petrie-related objects in the museum's collection?

DWL:Well, there is one group of interesting small statuettes that were excavated at Ehnasya in the Fayum region, south of modern Cairo. They are from the Roman period, the very last phase of ancient Egyptian history. One of them is Byzantine, perhaps as late as the seventh century. Egypt had become very cosmopolitan by that time, so several of these objects combine a mixture of cultural influences--they have some Egyptian elements and some Hellenistic.

WW:Will the students in your class be working on some of these objects?

DWL:The class I'm teaching this semester, which I've called Egyptian Art from Site to Museum, encompasses archaeology and museum theory. We will look not only at the objects but also the excavation reports. We will talk about excavation practices during the period the objects were found, and the understanding of art history at that period. Then we will consider how ancient objects are displayed in museums today and how our understanding of the objects has changed over time.

WW:Sounds like a wonderful combination of historical and museological viewpoints. Am I correct in assuming that you will also introduce your students to Amelia Edwards and her role in what became the Petrie Museum?

DWL:Yes. Edwards was the founder of the Egyptian Exploration Fund, which is now the Egypt Exploration Society. She traveled to Egypt in the 1870s and was horrified by the rampant looting that she saw there. Wanting to encourage a more scientific approach to excavation, she became a tireless organizer, lecturer, and fundraiser on behalf of Egyptian archaeology.

WW:And she was Petrie's prime backer, both financially and theoretically.

DWL:Indeed. Petrie was one of the chief excavators for the fund and eventually became the Edwards Professor at the University College London, a professorship set up through a bequest of Edwards. Without Amelia Edwards, there would be no Petrie Museum, for the institution that today bears the archaeologist's name was created by Edwards' 1892 bequest, through her donation of several hundred Egyptian objects to University College. The museum also acquired Petrie's extensive collection in 1913.

WW:One final thing: we recently discovered that Amelia Edwards had a special connection to Mount Holyoke. While on a lecture tour of the United States in 1889-1890, she spoke on Egyptian art at the College and received such an enthusiastic welcome that she was named an honorary member of the class of 1891.

DWL: Edwards was a remarkable person, and not someone who inherited her fortune, by the way. She was a journalist and novelist. Her best-selling book, A Thousand Miles up the Nile, is an engaging account of her only trip to Egypt. A first edition of that influential volume is now on display in the exhibition, alongside an eighteenth-century dynasty statue that once belonged to Edwards.

Related Links:

MHC Art Museum to Host Egyptian Exhibition

MHC Art Museum