Egypt & Public History – Reflections and Discussions

My weekly discussions in my coursework with Dr. McCormack were based around additional scholarly readings.

One of the most interesting conversations we had sparked the following reflections:

As part of my program, this semester I am taking an Ancient Egyptian history course (again).  The twist on the class, as opposed to most classes I took in my master’s program, is more of an emphasis on public history rather than academia.  Both are important and have their place, obviously. At MTSU, I’m lucky enough to have a great professor who recognizes the importance of public history, as well as the need in the Ancient history field for more a public historian approach.

To make the course possible at a PhD level (since it involves a lecture portion to a group of undergraduates), I meet outside of regular class time with the professor, and I have extra readings.  The context of the history that I am getting is great, and we have great academic discussions.  Today (as well as in the past, but today in particular), we had a great discussion on exhibits of ancient cultures and artifacts.

Have you ever been to an exhibit of Egyptian antiquities?  Greek or Roman or Mesopotamian or Chinese or anything?  What did you notice about those exhibits?  How are they presented?  How could they be improved?

These are some of the questions we discussed today.  In general, exhibits about Ancient Egypt seem impersonal and almost mystical.  Of course people love Ancient Egypt, for many reasons.  They love the gold and weirdness and the mysterious people who lived such a long time ago.  But is there any reason that the Egyptian people should be viewed as that far removed from ourselves?  Egyptians got sick and had marital problem and did laundry and even had fingernails and hair, just like us.  Wouldn’t it be beneficial to present that to people, so that they can experience Egypt or other ancient cultures themselves??

This reminded me of the Discovery Room at the Pink Palace (may it rest in peace, since it is a really sore subject for another blog at another time), and the exhibits that were displayed in the room at the time of the IMAX feature on Ancient Egypt.  There were hands on things to do in there that related to Egypt!  One could smell the smells of Egypt, such as frankincense or myrrh,  write in hieroglyphs (obligatory), and see a reproduction of a tomb wall, complete with paint.  People were able to interact with elements of Egyptian culture to an extent.

What can the big exhibits at the big museums with the big artifacts from ancient history do to make the presentation less cold and more vibrant and alive??   My professor and I came up with some pretty cool ideas (no bodies under the famous Berlin Nefertiti bust, sorry).   Some ideas could be expensive or complicated, though effective, while others really aren’t that hard to do.

One interesting idea is to have a wall sections that is generally displayed as-is.  Many people think of the Egyptians as stone like, carved in stone and colorless and lifeless.  However, the walls were actually very bright (gaudy?) and painted and vibrant.  How difficult would it be to somehow project a light onto that wall that showed the colors and how it would have looked to the people?  I’m sure it could be done.  We’re pretty smart people, out here in the museum field after all, right?

Another interesting comparison was made during our discussions of intermediate periods in Egyptian history.  For all of you non-Egyptologists who may be interested, traditionally, intermediate periods (as opposed to kingdoms i.e. Old Kingdom, New Kingdom…) were seen as times of chaos and breakdown.  Sources from the ancient Egyptians, usually written after the fact, support this theory of horrible things happening: famines, death, foreigners, etc.   Primary sources from the intermediate periods themselves speak of things being in a state of breakdown, but not to the extent that later sources do.  There are several reasons for this, such as legitimization of the new king and a show of power of the new guy as compared to the previous rulers.

We discussed that an interesting comparison might be made among the intermediate periods, sometimes called Dark Ages, and the medieval “Dark Ages” or even the Great Depression that followed the stock market crash in 1929 in the United States.  Maybe a comparison with the current “economic crisis” could be made that people could relate to.  Both my professor and I had an interesting take on the Great Depression, as we heard from our grandparents who lived through it.  Her family was in rural Texas during the depression; she heard several times from her family that it was “just like the grapes of wrath.”  How much did popular culture and hindsight play in the creating of the public memory?  Was it really so bad??  My grandfather remembers the Depressionas a child in the suburbs of Boston.  He told me that the one thing that sticks out in his memory is the question asked whenever friends were met on the street: “Are you working?”  This is a personal memory, of course, so it is not so questionable as a memory placed there by popular culture… but even in the time of the Great Depression, pictures, such as the one to the right, were staged and published!  What effect did this have on the people who were experiencing the Depression head on?  I realize this is a long tangent, but can it not be related to the Egyptians?  Were they experiencing many of the same things?

This is the mummy of Seti I – how real does he look? Don’t you know someone who could look like this today?

My professor also told me a story about a time when she was excavating in Egypt.  She excavated an entire road in a village; once she was finished, she was the first person to walk that road in thousands of years.  How powerful is that??  Can’t that feeling be conveyed (to an extent) to people at an exhibit?

Of course, there is always the gross stuff that you think of that sticks with you… diseases and violence.  At one site she excavated, a mummy’s foot stuck out of the ground, and workers kept tripping over it.  Once they removed it from the ground, the archaeologists discovered that the knee was still attached, and it creaked and made a noise much like anyone’s might.   How can this be presented to people, without totally freaking them out/being accepted.  These were real people!

One thing that personally always stuck with me, as I visited the McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee, is the presentation of mummies.  Of course, this is becoming controversial (a la NAGPRA to an extent), so it gets a bit tricky as well… However, whenever my friend and I would go to see Gilbert (as we named him) at the museum, I always noticed that you could see his toenails sticking out of the end of his wrappings.  His toenails!!   Again, I made the connection that he was once a person, but do others??  Do we present the Egyptians or ancients in this way?

Battlefields in America often focus on the logistics and the outcomes of a certain battle in relation to the bigger picture… but there are always some aspects of human elements as well.  Cannonballs stuck in trees or in houses show the impact that the war had on people.  On a visit to Chickamauga as an undergraduate, I remember a display that was basically text on the wall that had been taken from a soldier’s diary which spoke of the atrocities and realities of war (such as eyeballs hanging out of sockets and field surgeries).  Again, this is gross, but it definitely stuck with me and made me realize, “oh, there were actually thousands of people who died here and even more who were affected.”

Surely there are innumerable more ways to link the ancients with the present (and surely less grotesque ways as well).  The more I think about it the more convinced I become that this is something that needs to be addressed!  Where is the human elements in many of the ancient-related exhibits today??  Can’t we relate better to something if we understand it in a context related to our own world-view?

Additionally, there is a TON of room in Egypt itself for public history.  There is still a very colonial point of view in the country, and of course there are tons of political and religious things that play into the presentation of antiquities.  It’s really complicated; however, there is still a need for some sort representation.  Bottom line: there is a place, and possibly even a need, within the Ancient History field for public historians.

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