From Egyptomania to Respectable Collection.
Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.
In 1827, the same year the Australian Museum (then Colonial Museum) was established, two pioneers of Egyptology, Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832) and Ippolito Rosellini (1800–1843), planned in Paris their expedition to Egypt. The Italian Rosellini is now not widely known but Champollion had decoded, five years earlier, ancient hieroglyphs – a milestone in studies of ancient Egypt.
In the following year they explored the Valley of the Kings and the earlier discovered tomb (KV17) of Pharaoh Seti I of the Nineteenth Dynasty, also known as the tomb of Apis. We wish that their methods were more refined and thoughtful, but archaeology was then still in its infancy. Champollion and Rosellini sparked interest in Egyptian history which had simmered since Napoleon’s infamous campaign and looting in Egypt some three decades earlier.
It was not long after, in 1833, that the obelisk from Luxor - Cleopatra's needle – was transported to France and erected in the centre of the Place de la Concorde, a testimony to growing fascination with ancient Egypt. Sydney’s own Egyptian-style obelisk (not from Egypt) was erected in 1857, as a street decorum – a sewer vent (!) in Elizabeth Street on the edge of Hyde Park.
The enchantment with ancient Egypt is an interesting cultural phenomenon. Westerners considered it an apex of artistic and ‘cultural’ achievement as well as a precursor, via Greeks and Romans, of European and western civilisation. Such views were most clearly canvassed in the USA.
This fascination with ancient Egypt sparked a desire of Australian cultural institutions – museums, galleries, universities – and private collectors to acquire works of art and artefacts from the revered ancestor. From the1880s a number of museums in Australia subscribed to the Egypt Exploration Fund – the ‘White Australia’ sentiment did not prevent us from admiring black and coloured African kings and queens.
By 1930 about 70% of our Egyptian Collection was assembled, thanks to generous donors, especially Alfred and Ernest Wunderlich, Arthur David and George Abbott. The collection grew eventually to over 1000 objects. It is not systematic but an informative representation of ancient Egyptian artefacts such as ceramic or stone containers (35%), small figures (30%) and body decorations, especially from the Middle and New Kingdom era (c. 2050-1069 BC).
The Egypt Exploration Fund was established in 1882, with the intention to explore and excavate ancient sites in Egypt and Sudan. In 1919 the name was changed to The Egypt Exploration Society. It has explored many iconic archaeological sites, including Deir el Bahari, Amarna and Saqqara. The Society is highly respected for its research achievements and publications.
BC (or BCE) – means Before Common Era, and indicates the years counted back from the first year of the Western Calendar. For example, in 30 BC Rome conquered Egypt and Cleopatra took her own life.
The documentation with basic research of this Collection is under way with generous and enthusiastic help of volunteers, including Shenali Boange (Australian Museum), Natalie Cassaniti (Fairfield City Museum and Gallery), Penny Walker (Macquarie University) and Penny Zylstra (Australian Museum).