Why the Pharaoh Smiled ; ANTIQUITIES ++ Wondrous Curiosities: Ancient Egypt at the British Museum by Stephanie Moser CHICAGO [Pound]20
Smyth, Nicola, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
An Egyptian academic once took me on a tour of the British Museum, directing me around the galleries of antiquities and telling me what had been stolen from where. The histories of many of the best museum collections are filled with shameful episodes, and Stephanie Moser's fascinating study exposes to public view some very unedifying spectacles.
Wondrous Curiosities is the story of the early life of our national treasure-house and its relationship with some of its best- known exhibits. The British Museum opened its doors in 1759, and held initially just 160 items from ancient Egypt. Its early incarnation was as a vast cabinet of curiosities in which Egyptian mummies were displayed alongside other objects such as Oliver Cromwell's watch and a picture painted on a cobweb. Visitors had to apply in writing for tickets; 10 per hour were available, and only the well-connected would gain entry. There were few if any labels and visitors were hurried through by ill-informed guides. Nevertheless, the sights impressed. A 12-year-old visitor, John Coltman, wrote to his brother in 1780: "First we saw the Egyptians that had been dead 3,000 years ago. Next we saw the skull of an elephant, and the Queen of Otaheite's hat, the crown big enough to hold you, and the brim of it not much unlike the mat that lies at the bottom of our stairs."
Much of the collection was what Moser terms "serendipitous": it had been given to the museum by bequest - or conquest. Napoleon's looting of Egypt meant that the trophies of war from a British victory over the French in 1801 were unusually spectacular. Sadly, the trustees who received them seemed largely unimpressed. The museum authorities' lukewarm attitude is made clear by their dealings with one of the best-known collectors, the British consul, Henry Salt. Salt and his colourful co-collector, the Italian ex- circus strongman Belzoni, went to extraordinary lengths in recovering what are still some of the most iconic objects in the museum. The colossal bust of Ramesses II was brought - badly mutilated - by Belzoni in 1818, from Thebes, where he claims to have found it with "its face upwards, and apparently smiling on me, at the thought of being taken to England". (It's a pity that Moser doesn't have room for more of Belzoni's anecdotes - his exploits are truly eye-watering.) These, and many other treasures, were offered to the museum at what Salt considered, and Moser seems to agree, was a knockdown rate. But the trustees wrangled over the costs for six years, eventually reducing the price to [pound]2,000 (they had just paid [pound]35,000 for the Elgin Marbles) - a deal which was the subject of a later parliamentary inquiry.
Another painful footnote is the history of a statue of the same Pharaoh, this time from ancient Memphis. It was offered as a gift in 1835, but the trustees discovered it would cost [pound]5,000 to transport. It was proposed that perhaps it should be cut up in order to ship it more cheaply - or that, in …
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Publication information: Article title: Why the Pharaoh Smiled ; ANTIQUITIES ++ Wondrous Curiosities: Ancient Egypt at the British Museum by Stephanie Moser CHICAGO [Pound]20. Contributors: Smyth, Nicola - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent on Sunday (London, England). Publication date: January 7, 2007. Page number: 23. © 2009 The Independent on Sunday. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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