|History of the Egypt Centre|
How the Egypt Centre was born
In 1994 a small Egyptian collection resided in University of Wales, Swansea known and cared for by the Department of Classics and Ancient History and known to academics, but largely unheard of by the general public. Perhaps partly as object-centred teaching was not fashionable, many students of the department studying Egyptology at Swansea had never visited. That year Sybil Crouch, manager of the Taliesin Arts Centre at the University of Wales Swansea, suggested that the collection might be better used. In 1998, sleeping beauty awoke and the Egypt Centre was born – a museum of Egyptian antiquities yes, but also a resource to aid widening participation in Universities, a means of breaking down barriers between town and gown and an inspiration for students, visitors and volunteers. This web-paper attempts to outline a brief history of the collection and how it has been and is used in a University environment.
First a brief resume of the setting up of The Egypt Centre.
A small collection of classical artefacts had been gathered together prior to the setting up of the Wellcome collection. The outline for how this took place can be read in an article written by Gwyn Griffiths called 'Museum Efforts Before Wellcome' which appeared in Inscriptions, December 2000. Among these objects was a bust of Nefertiti, a copy of the famous original in Berlin. This item had been purchased by Prof. Kerford from the Berlin State Museums (it is now on display at the entrance of the Egypt Centre). A manuscript in the Egypt Centre archives comments on this proto-museum 'A man of sound sense in other ways, George Kerford committed one singular aberration from his normal standards: he thought that the best place to display these objects was outside the staff toilets at the back of the Science Library. He would defend this location by saying that it could hardly be bettered from the point of view of security, since very few students even penetrated to that lonely region'.
The present museum is based upon a selection of items brought together by the pharmacist Sir Henry Wellcome (James 1994; Turner 1980). When he died in 1936, his collection was cared for by trustees, who were eventually based in London. Much of the collection was dispersed to various museums in Britain, but by the early 1970s some of it remained in the basement of the Petrie Museum. Gwyn Griffiths, lecturer in the Classic Department of University College Swansea (now University of Wales, Swansea), and David Dixon, lecturer in Egyptology at University College London, between them arranged for a selection of the artefacts to come to Swansea. In 1971, ninety-two crates of material arrived in South Wales. These were later supplemented by 48 pottery vases. Kate Bosse-Griffiths, wife of Gwyn Griffiths and an Egyptologist, carefully unpacked them and rediscovered a wealth of objects, some of which were still wrapped in 1930s newspapers. As a determined and indomitable woman, Kate succeeded in setting up a small museum which resided in the Chemistry Department for two years. However, under the patronage of Professor Gould, a small room in the Classics Department soon housed a number of unique and exciting pieces, several of which Kate and others later published. Roger Davies, the Arts Faculty photographer, and his wife assisted Kate in the setting up of the exhibition. David Dixon, as a welsh speaking Welshman had requested that all labels were bilingual. This policy is still adhered to.
The collection formally opened to the public in March 1976 for two afternoons in each week of term (Thursdays and Fridays 2.30-4.30). Some artefacts were also displayed at the Royal Institution (now Swansea Museum). Within the University, while some cases were available, many artefacts were displayed unprotected and so in 1978-1979 additional display cases were purchased with the grand sum of £2,100 (inclusive of VAT) from the University reserve fund! In 1978 the collection was added to by items from the British Museum and in 1981 by the gift of a 21st Dynasty coffin from Exeter. Further items were given by individuals.
Occasionally, schools visited and Kate felt it extremely important to ensure that all visitors were made to feel welcome and of course to learn something of ancient Egyptian material culture.In 1993 the title 'Honorary Curator' was passed to David Gill, lecturer in the Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Wales, Swansea. David had formerly been a research assistant in Greek and Roman antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (1988-1992). Kate continued as Honorary Adviser.
The collection was however under-used, possibly because of resource limitations in terms of staff, money and space but also perhaps because of the then unfashionable nature of object-centred learning in universities. In January 1995 Sybil Crouch, manager of the Taliesin Arts Centre, produced a report to the University Image and Marketing Sub Committee suggesting the setting up of a new museum for the Egyptology exhibition. After the suggestion to improve access to the collection, Heritage Lottery Funding and European Regional Development Funding was sought. This, together with a sum from the University, allowed the building of a purpose built museum as a wing of the Taliesin Arts Centre. A working party, chaired by Professor Alan Lloyd, Head of the Department of Classics and Ancient History and an Egyptologist, worked on ideas for display. During this time members of the group had included: Anthony Donohue, an Egyptologist who had studied the collection over a number of years, Gerald Gab from Swansea Museum Service, David Gill, Fiona Dixon, a Swansea University architect, the designer and Sybil Crouch.
During the interim period, David Gill, together with Alison Lloyd of the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, organised an exhibition in the Glynn Vivian called 'The Face of Egypt' to show selected items from the Wellcome Museum, as well as items loaned from other Welsh museums, as a foretaste of the new museum. A student from Liverpool, Gareth Lucas, provided information for the catalogue. The exhibition proved a great success.
In 1997 the first professional curator was employed, Carolyn Graves-Brown, and in September 1998 the Museum was officially opened by Viscount St. Davids. Anubis was chosen as the new logo as he is not only an easily recognised Egyptian character, but, like the staff of the Egypt Centre, cares for the dead. In 1999 the Friends of the Egypt Centre was formed. A computer catalogue was produced, now accessible in the gallery, and in 2005 was put online. There are over 4000 objects, a few of which are detailed here. As well as the Egyptian items there are also a few classical artefacts.
The museum originally had one curator, partly funded by the Council of Museums in Wales. We now have four full-time members of staff, four part-time and over sixty volunteers. There are over four thousand artefacts in the collection, over 95 % of which are now catalogued, two galleries and a shop sales area and around 15,000 visitors each year. Now part of non-academic Business Services and reporting to the Taliesin Arts Centre manager, staff costs are funded by the University.
The success of the museum was largely due to unpaid individuals. Our volunteer programme made a virtue out of a necessity. Initially, lack of personnel forced reliance on volunteers, however, we have since turned this to advantage, using our volunteers to widen participation in the community. We now have a full time volunteer liaison officer who panders to their every need! Volunteers help in galleries acting as guides and leading school hands-on workshops. Workshop activities are very labour intensive with one leader working with six or seven children. A school usually visits for a day, and volunteers will normally work half a day or a day at a time. All paid and unpaid staff are vetted by the Criminal Records Bureau. We will accept volunteers with a criminal record but our real concern relates to child protection. Advice was taken from the Child Protection Agency and includes a strict written code for those working with children.
In 2000 Egyptology was taken out of the National Curriculum in Wales. This could have been a serious blow to the Egypt Centre. However, activities are tailored toward other topics such as religion, art and design, etc. We even offer all-day maths! The exotic and romantic aspect of ancient Egypt is exploited to encourage the study of topics traditionally considered by some to be uninteresting. Teachers borrow the Egyptian mathematics exhibition for classroom display prior to visiting the Centre and participating in hands-on measuring, symmetry, etc. Of all hands-on activities, the most popular is undoubtedly the 'dummy-mummy'. This rag doll has removable organs and a woolly brain which can be pulled out through the nose. It has amulets to be placed in the wrappings, a 'cartonnage' mask, and once it is prepared for the tomb, the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony can be performed by a child dressed as a sem priest. Click here if you want to find out more about our schools activities.No changes are made to activities, nor new activities introduced, without volunteer input. While we have a number of 'traditional' volunteers whose help we welcome, we have also worked with Pathways Training and Job Force Wales to employ people with various difficulties. Their development after a few weeks here can be remarkable. One particular volunteer with learning difficulties is able to help undergraduate students studying the collection. Not only are volunteers socially and economically diverse, their age range also varies from ten years to eighty plus. Our child volunteer programme is particularly innovative. Saturday visitors to the museum may well be greeted by an enthusiastic child anxious to demonstrate Egyptian maths or reveal the secrets of mummification.
In 2004 the Centre was successful in gaining a Millennium Volunteer Award of c. £3000. This is used for volunteer training, trips to other museums, volunteer sweatshirts, etc. Additionally we were awarded an additional sum of £15,000 from the Barings Foundation to enable volunteers to take a more proactive role in the museum. Awards were given to three British museums which Barings felt were particularly innovative in their volunteer programmes. The project will form part of a study by Barings to be published for the benefit of other organisations. Although funding was for eighteen months the benefits will be long term.
This project aims to harness people's interest in our work. We see our volunteers as an important means by which the wider community can become involved in the Centre. The scheme aims to enhance the volunteers' feeling of real integration and ownership, as well as widen participation in the existing volunteer programme.
Volunteers are encouraged to select and interpret objects for display. By this means we hope to counteract the common criticism that museum curators interpret objects in a purely didactic way for a passive public. Open storage display drawers enable display of chosen artefacts. Presentations by volunteers are viewable by the visiting public via a plasma screen to be placed in the museum entrance.
Volunteer development classes have been expanded so as to attract new people. The needs of disabled groups are addressed with large format and Braille information sheets and audiotape guides are being developed. A volunteers' newsletter is produced and volunteers opinions sought through questionnaires and focus groups.
Our other big success concerns out of school activities for disadvantaged children. We originally obtained c.£3000 for a pilot scheme from the lottery New Opportunities Fund (NOF), but now ensure the continuation of the scheme by fundraising ourselves.
Schools with a high number of socially or economically disadvantaged pupils are targeted. As this is a partnership with Swansea Council, we have benefited from the advice and support of local schools. Teachers decide which pupils, in their opinion, would most benefit. Though sadly, occasionally, parents will not allow children to visit despite the fact that transport and lunch are provided free of charge.
Fifteen children visit for two consecutive Saturdays and participate in various fun activities – taking the innards out of the 'dummy-mummy' is extremely popular. We also allow handling of real Egyptian objects, children go to 'scribe school' and write their names in hieroglyphs (some of these children cannot read or write English/Welsh), Egyptian mathematics is taught, etc. There are a number of craft activities and the resultant objects can be taken home.
At the end of the two days there is the presentation ceremony. Friends and relatives are invited and each child has a moment of glory as s/he publicly collects a certificate proving status as a ''Young Egyptologist''. Many of these children, and their carers, have never set foot in a museum before, let alone a university museum. However, initial apprehension is soon overcome by the children's excitement.
Our aim is to improve literacy and numeracy but most importantly to build confidence. Child friendly questionnaires and anecdotal letters are used in evaluation. We received correspondence from one teacher stating that a particular child's attitude to learning had changed so dramatically that she was now giving class talks on Egyptology and researching the subject in her own time!
Since we fundraise to continue these activities, Egypt Centre staff have been arranging cake sales, jumble sales, Charity Conferences and even cycling along the banks of the Nile in the Nile Cycle Challenge.
Last but not least, what do we do for the academic community? We do all the usual museum things of allowing access to objects, answering public enquiries, organising talks, conferences, etc. A digital catalogue was begun in 1998 and now has over 4000 items listed, a number of artefacts have been published by external scholars and artefacts can be viewed online. We have worked with the Department of Mathematics on a maths exhibition. We also work with the Department of Classics, Ancient History and Egyptology in delivering their Egyptology classes and recently have provided an MA museology module in Museums and the Interpretation of Egyptology. Conferences and seminars have also been arranged, a number of which take place as part of the Friend's events. We passionately believe in the value of object-centred learning. At the very least students who are able to handle and use real Egyptian objects are enthused about the topic in a way which is not possible simply by book reading. Since the opening of the Egypt Centre, Egyptology in Swansea University has developed enormously. We have also had a number of Swansea student volunteers from various academic departments who have gone on to gain paid employment in other museums.
Thus, the Egypt Centre is much more than simply a collection of Egyptian artefacts held for the delight of a few experts. Like a number of other museums we feel that artefacts can be used as a basis for improving the lot of a great many individuals.