I visited this exhibition at Manchester Museum last week and enjoyed it so much I thought I would set a few thoughts about it down here.
Many congratulations to Dr Campbell Price (full disclosure: he is a friend!), I thought it was brilliant. Firstly, the material is fantastic, of course, especially the splendid mummies themselves, and it’s all from the Manchester collection incidentally. The exhibits are not overwhelmed by the number of labels which are concise and punchy and printed in a readably large font(!), giving you the essential info but with a liberal sprinkling of what felt like – for a blockbuster exhibition – new, unusual and progressive ideas: Graeco-Roman Egypt; the collision in that era of the varying beliefs, practices and styles of an increasingly diverse population; the origin of the Manchester collection and removal of material from Egypt during the period of British colonial rule; Flinders Petrie (the main excavator), Amelia Edwards & others’ dubious ideas about what the mummies could tell us about the ancient people; no x-rays or facial reconstructions (done to death – no pun intended! – and of limited value); a focus not on what biology reveals about the ancient people’s earthly lives but rather on what the practice of mummification, mummy cases, iconography etc tell us about what the people hoped for in an eternal afterlife.
The book which accompanies the exhibition is also excellent.
It’ll be too progressive for some people, and not progressive enough for others but for me it’s absolutely spot on: ‘golden’ and ‘mummies’ enough to bring people in – it has been wildly popular already, and for anyone who just wants to see beautiful blingy things, there’s a lot to enjoy – but with plenty of challenging ideas that will get people thinking. There are some really important and very relevant issues here – the mixing of different groups of people and cultures, colonialism, racism – that all of us, not just academics, need to be thinking and talking about. For the debate to reach the mainstream it has to be accessible, and not just the preserve of clever and angry academics. The messages are gentler here, but they are there and they will already have reached thousands of people. The exhibition is a triumph, go and see it if you can! Tickets are free but must be booked in advance, here.