Welcome to Clio Ancient Art’s Travelogues Page, highlighting
places of archaeological or art historical interest visited by Chris M. Maupin in recent years. These should be of interest
to collectors of antiquities and ancient art. Our antiquities Travelogues pages are updated every couple of months with new
text and images. Your comments are most welcome. Enjoy. You may also view our archived Travelogues section by clicking here.
In 2012 this writer had the good fortune to visit two venerable institutions housing world class
collections of Egyptian antiquities: the Petrie Museum of Egyptology at University College, London and the Ashmolean Museum
of Art and Archaeology at Oxford. The impressions left by these visits were very different. In this short essay I hope to
highlight some of the marvels on display at both, explore the strengths and weaknesses of both and touch upon the very different
priorities assigned to them by their parent institutions.
Established in 1892 primarily as a teaching tool for
the new Department of Egyptology, University College’s Petrie Museum of Egyptology is tucked away in a rather obscure
location off Gower Street. Were it not for a few colorful banners pointing the way, it would be difficult to find. Visiting
hours are quite limited. Started with the donation of a few private collections, the Petrie’s holding grew enormously
in the first few decades of the 20th Century through the prolific excavation work in Egypt of Sir William Flinders Petrie.
Removed from London during the Second World War for safekeeping, the collections were returned in the 1950s and housed in
a former stables building, where they remain today.
The Petrie’s collections are particularly rich in Pre-Dynastic
and Early Dynastic materials, especially pottery, as well as textiles and costumes, glass and faience, papyri and inscribed
architectural fragments, many with string colors remaining. Unusually, much of the material is clearly provenance, having
been obtained through controlled excavations with find spots recorded. Also rather unusual is the fact that the Museum’s
collections cover not just Dynastic Egypt but also Roman, Byzantine / Coptic and early Islamic materials.
immediate impression one receives upon getting clear of the small admissions area and entering the Museum itself is of the
stereotypical “old fashioned” dark and dusty late 19th or early 20th Century museum experience. There is nothing
nostalgic about this. The fact that the Museum is housed in what was once a stables now makes its impact. The spaces are very
tight. There is very little room around most of the old fashioned, rather academic looking display cases for more than one
or two visitors to look at the contents. The lighting is dim (though in some instances this is to help preserve light sensitive
materials), making it very hard to enjoy viewing even the most impressive pieces. Objects are stuffed together tightly in
small cases, accompanied by descriptive labels that might be less than informative to a visitor with no background in Egyptology.
In most instances, obtaining good photographs is nearly impossible due to the lighting conditions and highly reflective glass
of the old display cases. The overall impression left is one of frustration at not being able to adequately enjoy the many
wonderful pieces on display, and of puzzlement as to why such an extraordinary collection has been relegated to such an inadequate
Superb collection of Pre-Dynastic and
Early Dynastic pottery. Petrie
In speaking with the staff at the Petrie, it seems there has been some high level discussion at University College in recent
years about relocating the collections to more suitable quarters. It is not clear how serious these discussions have been.
In any case, it seems any such move would only involve transferring the Petrie to an existing building rather than creating
a custom designed space. Any transfer of the collection to a more suitable space could serve in the long term as a major revenue
generator for UCL and the Petrie itself, allowing for far more visitors daily, longer visiting hours and more amenities (there
are virtually none now).
On the positive side, the Petrie does have a superb website, unsurpassed for research
purposes (http://petriecat.museums.ucl.ac.uk/search.aspx). This writer has utilized it many times in identifying or dating Egyptian antiquities offered by Clio Ancient Art. There
is also a very active “Friends” organization supporting the Petrie and offering guided scholarly tours to Egypt,
In stark contrast, the Ashmolean’s stunning collections of 40,000 Egyptian and Nubian antiquities
(and everything else, including Roman, Romano-British, Minoan, Greek and other antiquities, and European, Islamic and Asian
art and more) reside in what appears from street level to be a stately neo-classical structure completed in 1845 but both
extended upon and remodeled several times since then, including a major remodel of the antiquities collections in 2009. But
the collection’s history is much older, based upon an initial gift of a collection of natural history “curiosities”
and antiquities donated by the Museum’s namesake , Elias Ashmole, in 1683, becoming Britain’s first public museum.
Unlike the Petrie’s Egyptian collections, much of the Ashmolean’s Egyptian holdings were purchased in
Egypt during the heyday of the Grand Tour and Egyptian “antiquities tourism” of the 19th and early 20th Century.
The Ashmolean does boast the largest holding of Pre-Dynastic Egyptian antiquities in Europe, much of it acquired from excavations
by the Museum at Hierakanopolis between the 1880s and 1930s. There are also substantial Nubian (ancient Sudan) collections,
acquired during excavations starting in 1910, and Amerna Period antiquities. Interestingly, many objects from William Flinders
Petrie’s excavations excavations in Egypt found their way to the Ashmolean, as the Museum helped fund his work.
The Ancient Egypt and Nubia section of the Ashmolean occupies 6 spacious, well lit and custom designed galleries and displays
hundreds of thoughtfully chosen objects, as well as the only complete free standing Egyptian Pharaonic building in Britain.
The Ashmolean also boasts great amenities, including cafes, gift shops offering high quality publications and many
other items, ample elevators and ease of access – all in stark contrast to the cramped, dark Petrie Museum. Clearly,
Oxford University, with great foresight, made expansion and improvement of the Ashmolean’s collections, and ease of
access for the public, a high priority and spent generously on doing so.
On the other hand, the Ashmolean’s
online presence is less useful. While some very specific components of the collection are available in detail online, there
is no tool to allow a detailed search of every catalogued Egyptian antiquity in the collection, making it less practical than
the Petrie’s online tools.
Whatever the priorities of their parent institutions, and whatever the strengths
and weaknesses of each, both the Petrie and the Ashmolean’s Egyptian collections are an absolute must for anyone with
a serious interest in ancient Egypt.