An Aussie-expat-in-London visits ancient Egyptian expats in OZ

by Amanda Ford Spora

Exploring how three Australian museums display their ancient Egyptian artefacts and the affect this has on their audibility.

So, here I was, an Aussie-expat-in-London boarding a plane, in a journey that would take 16,000 km to my place of birth. Sydney, the home of the Opera house, the Harbour Bridge, and host city to an ancient Egyptian expat community, I was going to meet. These expats had travelled a long way too, spatially and temporally, they had journeyed from various sites in Egypt, via London, to three Australian institutions. They're part of the community of artefacts which left Egypt during official British excavations and were redistributed across more than 325 institutions around the world. I became part of this community while volunteering on the Artefacts of Excavation project at the Petrie Museum, in conjunction with my studies at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL.

I've lived for the last ten years as an expat in various countries, and have a bona fide “third culture" son, who started his education in Tanzania and is coming close to the final years of school in London. Fundamental to the experience of living as an expat is the way cultural peculiarities are brought into focus. At the same time, there is the experience of displacement when visiting “home”, as a place frozen in time, as you understand it's changed without you.  I digress, I know, but I got to thinking about the ancient Egyptian expats, wondering if they share similar experiences. What did it mean to be an ancient Egyptian living in Australia and what is the audibility of these expats in their new home? What relationship does this expat community have with their homeland and what meaning could there be for figurative or physical homecoming?

My journey to meet the ancient Egyptian expats took me to three Australian institutions, and included meeting members of the community of people who are in current relationships with the expats and who are responsible for creating their audibility and current stories. The three institutions —the Australian Museum, the Museum of Ancient Cultures, and the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney—are quite different from each other and offer their expats different experiences of audibility.

Meeting with Dr Stan Florek on the sun soaked verandah of the museum’s coffee shop, with its exterior an homage to colonial architecture, juxtaposed with its modern interior, I understood the audibility of our expats in the Australia Museum is limited. The museum, established in 1827, has a mandate to display the unique flora, fauna and cultures of Australia and the Pacific. I was quite surprised that this museum was one of the distributed destinations for the British excavations. It was unclear to me how the ancient Egyptian expats found a home here within this collection. These issues for audibility are overcome in two ways, firstly by long term loans to local university museums, that are better placed to facilitate their voice, and secondly by inclusion in special exhibitions. I also came to understand the reason for the inclusion as a distributed destination was because of its place as the first Australian public museum, rather than a specific interest in Egyptian archaeology.

I participated with Karl Van Dyke, director of the Museum of Ancient Cultures at Macquarie University, in an education session with 16 year olds on ancient Rome. The session included, a lecture component, object handling and object observation. The museum has a mandate to support the teaching of undergraduate and postgraduate students in the department of Ancient History; while also acting as a gateway for students of primary and secondary school, in gaining their first experience of university, ancient history and archaeology. Karl’s approach with these secondary students was focused on object based learning, to encourage students to postulate theories about the objects through handling and observation.

At my third and final stop I came face to face with the expats I had travelled so far to meet. I was at the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney, founded in 1860, Australia’s oldest university museum. The Nicholson aims to be a Australian cultural institution, open to the public and part of the university; the museum displays artefacts of artistic and archaeological focus from Egypt, Greece, Italy, Cyprus and the Near East. I met both the assistant curator Candace Richards and newly appointed curator Jamie Fraser.

I was most interested in the "Death Magic" gallery and the audibility it gives to the artefacts; there was a conversational engagement that invited a fresh perspective with the displays and with the combination of objects. One display combined the mummified remains of a head, a biological specimen of a brain and a replica of an Ancient Egyptian brain hook. Another display of scarabs in a "house of mirrors" style box combined Ancient Egyptian scarabs and biological beetle specimens. It is the remix of objects from different disciplines that were graphic and challenging; seeing scarabs with beetles and seeing the mummified head with the brain and hook made a strong impression on me and made me consider the arterfacts in a new light. There was also an accompanying handout which gave information about the artefacts, including excavation history and therefore identification as members of our Artefacts of Excavation community.

As I moved around the gallery, handout in hand, I greeted many members of the community I had travelled here to meet. It was at the Nicholson that I really met the expats on display, speaking with voices about their journey and in a context that made me consider where they had come from in a practical and cultural way. I was captivated by a display entitled "Faces". It was here that I came face to face with the painted limestone head of a man that returned my gaze. It was as I stood there gazing that I thought of the other members of the community I had met on my visit to Australia. The different circumstances of audibility and the extended members of the community who are in current relationships with these expats. Everyone showed a great interest in communicating and were pleased with this opportunity to meet in person and I rather imagine that it is through making these connections that we offer a homecoming of sorts to the ancient Egyptian expats by reconnecting their stories and giving their voices a chance to be heard.

It was from one expat to another that I gave my friend a respectful bow and was off on my way.

P.S I also enquired at the address we had for the Egypt Exploration Society offices in Sydney, to find it long gone and a convenience shop on the site! 

Out the front of the Australian Musuem
Here I am at the Macquarie Uni campus
At the Nicholson Musuem, University of Sydney
Scarabs and once living bettles
The face of the man who returned by gaze