Given the rising consciousness of the museum discipline’s basis in White colonial energy, museums at the moment are taking motion, rallying across the phrase “decolonize” to increase group partnerships and take away sculptures that remember White domination, whereas reanalyzing their very own previous and current assortment practices. Not less than outwardly, we now have seen a motion towards utilizing extra inclusive language, growing accessibility, and diversifying programming, however our discipline has rather more work forward.
For museums to really perceive and acknowledge their colonial historical past, this self-examination should transcend investigating how they constructed their collections into how they proceed to interpret them. Taking a look at how and why museums interpret their historic Egypt collections, we are able to see museums’ position in making a Western-based narrative that has appropriated historic Egyptian historical past, and fragmented Egyptian historical past, tradition, and id to create an incomplete and oversimplified narrative.
By the tip of the 18th century, archaeology and museum accumulating in Egypt was effectively established by European, British, and American funders, analysis organizations, and museums. The fruits of those excavations was Howard Carter’s 1922 rediscovery of the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun 1922.
On the time of those excavations, from the mid-1800s to early 1900s, the narrative developed that Egypt was the birthplace of Western civilization. The place did this notion originate? Between 1890 and 1900, E.H. Blashfield painted a mural throughout the rotunda of the Library of Congress titled “The Evolution of Civilization.” This brightly coloured mural illustrates the ostensible development of civilization from historic Egypt to America. Every step of evolution carries its personal contribution: Egypt with the written file; Judea for faith; Greece for philosophy; Rome for administration; Islam for physics; and America for science. The figures representing every area have been solely White.
Shortly after the completion of Blashfield’s mural, James Henry Breasted, archaeologist, historian, and a founding father of the College of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, printed a number of textbooks that outlined the “nice White race.” In his books Historic Instances, a Historical past of the Early World (1916) and The Conquest of Civilization (1926), Breasted outlined the classification “White” that encompassed southwestern Asia and North Africa, together with Europe.
Claiming Egypt as a White race reinforces Blashfield’s assertion that Egyptian civilization ought to be thought of a part of the creation of Western civilization. Breasted asserts, “Within the Orient, in the course of the thousand years from 4000 to 3000 BC … slowly constructed up a excessive civilization, forming the start of the Historic Epoch. Civilization thus started within the Orient … ” If the Orient, in line with Breasted, gave rise to Western civilization, the place did the Orient originate? Within the first sentence of the second chapter of The Conquest of Civilization Breasted states, “We’re to start our examine of the early Orient in Egypt.”
By the Nineteen Twenties, the evolutionary progressions developed by Blashfied’s mural and the writings of James Henry Breasted, amongst others, led this Western civilization canon to grow to be the usual faculty curriculum taught all through the US.
In conjunction, museums introduced the narrative of this now-established canon of growth: from Egypt, via to Greece, Rome, and “the West.” This narrative stays in lots of encyclopedic museums that usually blatantly place their historic Egyptian collections inside European artwork collections. On the San Francisco’s Legion of Honor, for instance, guests can get pleasure from elaborate Roman vases and detailed glasswork proper alongside historic Egyptian friezes, small sculptures, and a standing mummy whereas ready in line to enter the café. Likewise, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Artwork’s beautiful historic Egyptian assortment is simply down the corridor from their equally beautiful Greek and Roman collections. However is that this sequence restricted to museums? Once we educate artwork historical past or sixth-grade historic civilizations, do these programs not additionally usually observe an analogous strategy?
This sequential and simplistic narrative is inherently problematic. Except for putting the event of Western tradition or colonization on the middle of the story, it has additionally splintered Egypt’s historic historical past from its modern legacy and folks. The disconnect between historic and modern tradition is clear on the New York Metropolitan Museum of Artwork, the place Egyptian historical past is separated between historic Egyptian and Islamic collections positioned on completely totally different flooring.
This divorce of historic Egypt from its modern legacy is so full that trendy Egypt appears unlikely because the supply of its historic historical past. In actual fact, we now have seen few if any adjustments because the nineteenth century in museums’ interpretation and presentation of historic Egyptian collections. For instance, in the course of the 2011 revolution to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak, museums overseas typically remained silent and their assortment galleries remained static, giving an impression of disconnect from current occasions. In the meantime, organizations such because the American Analysis Middle in Egypt have catered programming to broaden the narrative and historical past of historic Egypt to its African roots, akin to their 2021 panel sequence, “Africa Interconnected: Historic Egypt & Nubia.”
What may an answer appear like? San Francisco’s Legion of Honor held a modest exhibition titled The Way forward for the Previous: Mummies and Medication from Could 2016 via April 2019. Whereas the exhibition continued a singular deal with historic Egyptian tradition and mummification, the partitions surrounding the shows revealed a potential connection to modern artwork varieties and interpretation. The Legion of Honor invited American-born road artist RETNA to cowl the partitions in a script impressed by Egyptian, Coptic, Hebrew, and Arabic. This writing, impressed by graffiti artwork, appears to mix historic and modern senses collectively, which in flip creates a bridge between previous and current. Though RETNA shouldn’t be Egyptian, what may such a partnership between museum and artist or between museum and residing cultures supply audiences and the legacy of historic historical past?