The Museum. What can I say? It just blew me away, knocked my socks off, floored me.
I’ve been involved in the fringes of the museum world on occasion, a member of various teams pitching for contracts and so on. And I know a bit about theories of pedagogy and the like, and how active learning is the key, and how we need to engage visitors on a voyage of discovery and all that. I’ve watched kids playing with a neat exhibit designed to familiarise them with Coriolis forces and their ramifications. And I’m pretty certain that all they learned was how to squirt to one side in order to soak their friends, and equally certain that they had no idea why that should be so, only that it worked.
I’ve also seen people gazing at a case of mounted moths, all of the same species, and lost in a rapturous contemplation of the natural world.
The Cairo Museum is definitely an experience of the second type. It is all there. Barely any of it is explained with anything as vulgar as an interpretation. Indeed, even the labels warning that it is forbidden to touch or to lean on the glass cases are rather sparse. But the stuff! My God the stuff!
“The dwarf Seneb, Chief of all the seven Dwarfs of the Clothing”
Seneb brought me up short because I realized he was depicted as a real person. So many of the other statues seemed to be generic, types rather than people. The poses of the kneeling scribe; of the standing statues, hands at sides, fingers wrapped around a rod; of the faces, all equally serene, all equally bland. Then a label tells me that such and such is one of the earliest examples of a portrait of a real person. So all those others, meticulously identified when possible, the identification must depend on the hieroglyphics on each statue. And next to the little model of the Rosetta Stone, I learn that
“The Greek inscriptions provided a key to the translations of the Egyptian Hieroglyphs.”
But are they transliterations? And if not, how do we know how the glyphs were pronounced?
“Three different kinds of gees.”
On a wall, the original papyrus that spawned a thousand imitations. Much fresher than all the copies, with fine details like the little teeth on the open beaks. And different feathering that must represent male and female birds. Round and about snatches of familiar images. Ducks taking off from lotus flowers. Women kneeling to grind wheat. Flails and sceptres everywhere.
Finding the information becomes a game in itself. And here’s where the dusty old museum starts to score over the all-singing, all-dancing, interactive, interpretative centre. I see things that I note as
“statues in steam boxes”
Later on I see vases with heads. Some of the heads are not human, but baboons, and hawks, and dogs (which I later learn are jackals). There are complete sets of four. And on another side of the museum tiny statuettes of the four sons of Horus. And finally — gold dust — a label explains that the vases are canopic jars, which contained the viscera of the mummy and were placed nearby in the tomb. One jar each for the liver, the lungs, the stomach and the intestines. (What, I think, no heart? Didn’t I see something earlier about someone's heart being weighed?) And the four sons of Horus take an organ each. Amest keeps a human head and looks after the liver. The baboon is Hapi, of the lungs. Dunmutef is that jackal in charge of the stomach. And the hawk, or falcon, is Kebehsenuef, guardian of the intestines.
OK, there are still fabulous gaps in my knowledge. Like, what is the relationship between Dunmutef the jackal and Anubis the jackal? But I feel that I have made something of a breakthrough, all on my own. Bits of information, scattered observations, have come together in something that resembles coherence.
A similar sort of process brought the two crowns to life for me. The white crown, called that no matter what colour it actually is in the piece depicted, is bulbous and associated with the lotus sceptre and Upper Egypt in the South. The red crown is the one with a spike at the back, has the papyrus sceptre and represents Lower Egypt in the North.
Large sections of the museum, whole rooms and more, are like the result of a giant sorting game. All the left-facing baboons, over here. Right-facing baboons, there. Isis, suckling Horus, in this cabinet. Sons of Horus, there. Harpocrate, put your finger in your mouth and stand on this shelf. Wait a minute. Harpocrate, it says over there you are Horus as a child. So why was Isis suckling Horus, not Harpocrate? And Harpocrate, you look awfully grown up. I give up.
“Shawabtis of Entiuny”
Made of dark blue faience, and lined up, having been found in the tomb of Queen Meritamen. Like mini-mummies. They make sense of a couple of cases I saw a couple of days ago, back in what I later learned were the King Tut rooms. A case of five rows of these little mummies, each around 30 cm tall, sorted by size and by image. A little further along, another case, but this time the mini-mummies seem to be of terracotta or gilded wood. So are these also Shawabtis?
Of course, one can come home and Google. (Yes, they are.) Or one can wander off, perhaps not even puzzled by the existence of these little artefacts that don’t seem to be a whole lot different, in terms of craftsmanship, from the ethnic tat on sale in the bazaar.
There are two exceptions to the rule of dusty cabinets. One is the King Tut stuff. Ho hum. The other is a room converted by the addition of a red fabric roof into a kind of tented enclosure, within which are displayed just a few of the astonishing Fayoum portraits, on plexiglass supports, no less, and with individual (dim) lights. OK, they are much later than most of the rest of the stuff. And their general look was familiar. But they possessed the power to stop even my untutored eye in its tracks. The detail, the freshness, the apparent verisimilitude are so unlike everything else in the museum that it comes as a bit of a shock to learn that they are apparently serving much the same purpose as all those funerary masks; helping the soul to recognize its body.
There’s so much else that I noted. The little models of everything, like the carpenters shop, the model house complete with water pool fed by rain spouts on the roof and seven fig trees. The flax spinning and weaving. The household work. The boats. The armies. The seeds. The byway dedicated to animal mummies, which tempted few visitors, but which gripped me with its mummified pets and heaps of wrapped cats. X-ray studies have shown up some of the wrapped cats as fakes, most likely manufactured by venal priests (no change there) for sale to gullible believers (no change there either).
I could go on and on. And I hope to go back and back. But here’s the big question: does any one kind of museum do a better job of informing and educating its visitors? I doubt it. More depends on the visitor than the museum, I suspect. I made my notes and came home and checked some of it out on the net (and by Thoth there’s a lot of it about). I’m never going to be an expert, having suffered the grave disavantage of being born before every schoolchild was required to “do the Egyptians” for a term, but I know more now than before. And perhaps more than if I had been to an all-singing, all-dancing, interactive, interpretative centre. But that’s probably just me.
The Cairo Museum is of a dying breed. Many people regard it as old-fashioned and boring. And perhaps for many people it is. But I hope they never modernize it completely. Or, if they do, maybe they’ll leave the old one intact as a museum exhibit of how museums used to be.
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