Somewhere in Egypt Indiana Jones faces his toughest test, negotiating safe passage to the Grail, with the Nazis in hot pursuit. Though he would balk at the comparison there is more than a touch of Raiders of the Lost Ark about the tests Dominic Montserrat, OU lecturer in Classical Studies, confronted en route to his own Grail: curating an exhibition of Egyptian archaeology, Digging for Dreams.
At least Jones had only the Nazis to worry about; Montserrat faced challenges wherever he turned. A handful of them appear on video in the final section of the exhibition, which is currently showing at the Croydon Clocktower. A woman talks earnestly about the power of her regular prayers to the Cat Goddess; a young man pours scorn on Hollywood's transformation of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor into ancient Egyptians - being just the tip of a racist iceberg which has tried to write his black forebears out of Egyptian culture; two schoolchildren get squeamishly giggly over mummies.
Their voices emerge from a screen surrounded by cabinets containing Camel cigarettes, chocolate Tutankhamuns and one hundred and one other examples of the way ancient Egyptian culture has been absorbed into our homes, our art, our entertainment and our consciousness.
So where precisely do you tread with an exhibition of ancient Egyptian culture when there are already so many interpretations, so many interest groups corralling the work of archaeologists to peddle their own beliefs, so much modern day mythology about what it all means?
If Montserrat could choose his own model it is more likely to be to Sir Flinders Petrie, whose career unearthing and assimilating some 80,000 objects into a personal collection during the 19th and early 20th century provided the exhibits for Digging for Dreams.
Both are popularists, believing that non-specialists deserve access to antiquities and high quality information about the world they come from. Petrie was a scholar in the best OU tradition: self- educated but rising to become both a knight and professor at University College London, without ever attending university as a student. His success was due in part to his carving out a role as media pundit, a sort of David Attenborough of his day. Through articles in popular publications such as The Illustrated London News, Montserrat believes Petrie "contributed more than anyone else to creating the popular picture of ancient Egypt in this country."
Montserrat's background, too, is in Egyptology, though he was teaching classics when he was awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to curate the exhibition with the help of the Axiom Design Partnership. His aim, he says, was not only to win wider access to a collection that, until now, has been seen by few other than archaeology students at UCL (indeed half of it has never even been catalogued so, from a research point of view, doesn't exist). He also wanted, Petrie-style, to revitalise interest and debate between the "experts", the interest groups and the wider public.
For example, the exhibition steps boldly into the debate about the presence of black history in Egyptian culture. New Nation claimed, in its preview of Digging for Dreams, that it would "lift the lid on European history's lies", restoring to black African peoples their role in a civilisation which modern societies have admired and studied for its arts, its science and its organisation.
Montserrat found sufficient evidence of that presence among the Petrie collection to fill one case with artefacts featuring indisputably black African roots or features. He would like to have found more, and admits: "Some afro-centrists have said it doesn't go far enough."
At the same time, he warns against over-simplification of a social system that, it appears from other relics, could also represent black people as servants or erotic objects. …