Janet May Buchanan Scotland's forgotten heroine of Egyptology

By Brian Weightman and Margaret Wilson

Women in Victorian and Edwardian times made a considerable contribution to British Egyptology. The accolades and academic positions, however, were dominated by men. It was a time when female emancipation was the largest domestic issue in Britain and the politics of most Egyptologists in Britain still mirrored the anti-suffrage views of the majority of contemporary society.  Although the contributions to the subject by a few women of this period have received the credit they rightfully deserve, most still remain unsung heroines.

One such woman who deserves greater recognition is a Glaswegian called Janet May Buchanan. The size and significance of Glasgow Museums’ Egyptology collection owes much to contributions which can be credited to her efforts and influence. Around one quarter of the 4000 Egyptian objects in Glasgow Museums’ collection today are connected to Janet May Buchanan.

Until recently her name was not given the prominence it deserved and this seems to be partly due to the attitude of certain museum staff to women in the early 20th century. It was a view which would affect the museum to this day.

Janet May was born in Glasgow in 1866 and educated at a private school in Cheltenham with a connection to Girton College – an institution with strong links to the women’s emancipation movement. A substantial inheritance after the death of her wealthy physician father in 1906 enabled her to pursue her own interests, which included the study of Egyptology.

The study of ancient Egypt was a popular subject for women. Amelia Edwards, founder of the Egyptian Exploration Fund (EEF), ensured this when she left money through her will for Flinders Petrie to become the first to accept the newly created Chair of Egyptology at London University. Amelia had strong suffrage sympathies and Petrie promised to accept women as students. It was one of the few academic subjects that allowed women to participate.

The connection between his students and the suffrage movement is clear –Margaret Murray, Hilda Petrie and her sister Amy Urlin were supporters. However, the opposing view was also present in the ranks of Egyptology with the then President of the EEF, Lord Cromer, also being President of the Anti-Suffrage League!

In an effort to stem the demand for emancipation, the establishment allowed women to join certain societies and women’s councils. Janet May went one step further and created two societies herself – the Edinburgh and Glasgow branches of the Egyptian Research Students Association (ERSA) which supported Petrie’s excavations.

Within two years of her involvement she was voted on to its national committee and her two branches were collecting twice as much money as the eight other English branches combined.

Janet May Buchanan also single-handedly organised Glasgow’s first Egyptian exhibition in November 1912. Astonishingly, it opened only a few months after agreement was reached with the museum authorities to host it. Today even a small museum display can take months to produce and involve many staff.

The exhibition itself consisted of loans of objects from Petrie and many others. Janet May persuaded her powerful friends among the cream of Scottish society to loan their Egyptian artefacts and Petrie’s assistant, Margaret Murray, was drafted in to catalogue the exhibits.

The connection between Egyptology and suffrage is quite clear in the exhibition catalogue. Murray wrote an introductory section entitled “The Position of Women” which lauded the status of women in Ancient Egyptian society. In addition to this, two thirds of members of the Scottish branches of the ERSA were female and many had known connections to the suffrage movement.

Tragically, Janet May Buchanan was killed in a car accident in December 1912 just three weeks after the exhibition opened. But the impact she made was lasting. The exhibition continued for a further six months with a then unprecedented 10,000 visitors a week. Busloads of children and organisations paid a visit as it caught the imagination of the Scottish public.

Her death also ensured that she would leave a lasting legacy. The two branches of the ERSA decided to create the Janet May Buchanan Memorial Fund to purchase Egyptian objects for display in Glasgow Museums’ public gallery. Many lenders to the original 1912 exhibition offered to donate their objects permanently. Other objects were purchased and donated over the next decade.

This generosity, however, does not seem to have been welcomed so keenly by the Museum Directors, Mr Paton and later Mr Brotchie.  Unlike today, there was no Glasgow Museum Resource Centre for objects to be placed in publicly accessible storage or online catalogues for disseminating collections information. Photographs of museum displays on Ancient Egypt in the early 20th century show cases crammed full of virtually every object in that institution’s collection whereas a modern display would be far more focussed on a much smaller number of objects with public access to other objects provided in other ways. Therefore, at the time of this bequest, displays in public galleries were the only vehicle for displaying a museum’s collection. Was the decision to exclude items from display at this time a deliberate act by museum staff?

In 1914, two years after Janet May’s exhibition, a new catalogue of Egyptian objects in the Kelvingrove Gallery was produced. The museum director enthusiastically welcomed donations of objects from Dr Colin Campbell and other male donors in the introduction to this new catalogue – all of which were placed on public display in the museum gallery.

In stark contrast not a single artefact connected to the J M Buchanan Memorial Fund was mentioned or displayed. The hundreds of objects in her collection were still languishing in a basement store, uncatalogued and unopened.

Could it be that, in 1914, the museum establishment did not regard this collection as important and was still blinded by entrenched attitudes to women, whom they regarded as amateurs at best?

If so, it was an attitude which would cost them dearly. The Glasgow ERSA promptly redirected all future donations to the Memorial Fund to Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum. If Glasgow Museums’ establishment had been more understanding, its collection might have been considerably larger.

There were also serious future repercussions for the museum itself. The lack of appreciation of the objects when they were donated has led to a large number of issues of mis-identification and loss of provenance which still causes problems today. By using excavator marks, archive letters and referring back to original excavation reports of the British School of Archaeology in Egypt, it is possible in some cases to reconnect these objects with their original contexts. It would have been so much easier if politics had not got in the way!

Had Janet May lived, there is little doubt that she would have addressed this situation before it was too late. In death, she has left a staggering Egyptological legacy, not only for Glasgow, but the whole of Scotland

Glasgow Art Galleries and Museums letterhead

Letterhead of Glasgow Art Galleries and Museums, circa. 1908.

Janet May Buchanan catalogue cover

Cover of the catalogue put together by Janet May Buchanan, 1912. © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection