If the British Museum’s Egyptology collection is the Great Pyramid of Giza then the Petrie Museum is the tomb of Tutankhamen: small and easily overlooked in favor of its grand neighbor, but, upon discovery, absolutely bursting with treasures. In fact, the Petrie Museum contains over 80,000 artifacts and ranks among some of the foremost collections of Egyptian and Sudanese archeology in the world.
The museum takes its name from Sir William Flinders Petrie, a British archeologist, who is considered to be the father of modern archeology. Prior to Petrie, it appears that the usual practice amongst Western archeologists upon finding an artifact was to promptly yoink it up out of the ground. Petrie pioneered a more methodological approach to archeology by emphasizing the careful cataloguing of artifacts and the close examination of the environment within which archeologists found an artifact so that they could gain insight into how that object was used and why it might have ended up where it did. However, the origins of the Petrie Museum lie not with Petrie, but with a novelist named Amelia Edwards, who became an avid Egyptologist following a trip up the Nile in 1873. Edwards financially supported Petrie’s archeological work and established her own collection of Egyptian artifacts. Before her death in 1892, Edwards concluded that she had collected enough artifacts to serve as the beginning of a “modest museum” and, as such, decided to bequeath both her collection and enough money to establish a Department of Egyptology to University College London, which at that point in time was the only university in Britain awarding degrees to women on the same level as men. Apparently having been dismissed by the curators at the British Museum one time too many, Edwards also attached such particular requirements to the role of chair for this new Department that the only man who could fill the job was Flinders Petrie, thereby ensuring that no man from the British Museum would ever get his hands on her collection; and so, the Petrie Museum was born.
In its early years, the Petrie Museum operated solely as a research resource for UCL students and was housed directly under the dome on UCL’s main campus. At the start of WWII, the collection was moved out of London in order to protect it. This turned out to be a very wise decision, as the dome at UCL received a direct hit during the Blitz and the museum’s original location was destroyed. When the war ended and the museum’s collections were returned to London, the university decided to install the museum in an old stable, tucked away down an alley at the back of the campus, which would serve as a temporary location until a new one could be found. Over 75 years later, the Petrie Museum can still be found at its “temporary” location on Malet Place, next to the UCL Science Library. The Petrie still functions as a research institute today – the museum is closed to the public every Monday so that UCL archeology students can come in and study the collection – but thankfully, one no longer needs to be enrolled at UCL to see what the Petrie Museum has to offer.
Given the confines placed on the museum by its location, the museum can only display about 10% of its collection at a time, spread out between two main galleries and a back staircase. However, given the fact that the collection clocks in at over 80,000 artifacts, that still means that you get to see around 8,000 objects. The museum still houses the collection in its original late-Victorian display cases, which can give the impression that you’re stepping back in time. Every single shelf is absolutely crammed with things to look at. This means that, in spite of the museum’s small size, it is still very possible to become overwhelmed with the number of objects to look at. As such, I recommend either asking the volunteer at the front desk for the museum’s “Top Ten Must See Objects” trail, to make certain you see the highlights, or downloading the Petrie Museum app, which is free for download on both the App Store and Google Play. The app also has the Top Ten trail in addition to talks from the curator, a Museum tour, and more information about both Petrie and his excavation sites in Egypt. The app also has information about the museum’s current temporary exhibition and an audio-described Museum Tour for blind or partially sighted visitors. Top tip: if you’d like to use the app and don’t want to use up a bunch of data, I’d recommend downloading it ahead of your visit as the University guest Wi-Fi can be temperamental.
The Petrie’s Top Ten list includes such artifacts as the Tarkhan Dress, the oldest dress in the world with an origin date of 3,000 BC; a stele depicting the heretic pharaoh, Akhenaten, and his famous wife, Nefertiti, worshipping the sun disk, Aten; beautifully detailed mummy portraits from the Roman occupation of Egypt; and a bead-net dress, which tells us just as much about the Western archeologists who discovered it as it does about the Egyptians who would have worn it. Apparently, the archeologists who found the bead-net dress in the 1920s were so scandalized by its apparent scantiness that they connected it to a shocking story about a lascivious and despotic pharaoh. As the story goes, the pharaoh, Sneferu, growing bored on a boat trip up the Nile, ordered that his dancers have their clothes taken away from them and be given nets to wear instead. The archeologists believed that the dress was intended to be worn nude by a girl of about 12. In fact, when conservationists put together a reconstruction of the dress in the 1990’s, they found that the dress could stretch to fit women of all ages and that it was far too heavy to be worn directly against the skin. I feel that this is one of the key differences between the Petrie Museum and other Egyptian archeology exhibitions. At the Petrie, the people who unearthed these objects are as much a part of the story as the objects themselves. This approach helps visitors to gain a more nuanced understanding of the study of archeology, as the museum works to highlight the points at which an archeologist’s conclusion about an artifact in fact reflected their own cultural context rather than that of the object they were studying.
The Petrie Museum also works to show how the story of Egyptian archeology goes far beyond men like Flinders Petrie by drawing attention to all of the people around Petrie, who worked with him and helped make his career possible. Amelia Edwards financially supported Petrie’s digs. Hilda Petrie, Petrie’s wife, assisted him on excavations. Margaret Murray, his assistant, was instrumental in cataloging Petrie’s finds. Egyptian workers, like Ali Suefi, did the majority of the physical labor and often ran the excavation sites. These are just a few of the individuals, whose work the Petrie brings to light in order to remind visitors of all of the different people who were instrumental in bringing the collection of 80,000 artifacts together.
It is said that, upon cracking open the door to Tutankhamen’s tomb, Howard Carter responded to the inquiry if he could see anything with “Yes. Wonderful things.” The Petrie Museum is filled with wonderful things, although many of them may surprise you. The contents of Tutankhamen’s tomb shed light on the life of a king; while the Petrie museum has its fair share of grand stele and gilded amulets, its collection goes far beyond illuminating the lives of the Ancient Egyptian elite. Through the museum’s collection, you begin to gain deeper insight into the lives of the Ancient Egyptian people as a whole, from the amphorae they transported their goods in to the rag dolls they made for their children. You learn the stories of the traps the Ancient Egyptians built to keep rats out of their homes and the wills they wrote to pass their property down to the next generation. Interspersed through the collection are stories of the people who collected these artifacts and brought them from digs in Hawara, Lahun, and Amarna to the streets of Bloomsbury. Through the objects at the Petrie Museum, the stories of the Ancient Egyptians and the archeologists who attempted to understand them thousands of years later come slowly into the light. Wonderful things, indeed.
Opening Hours: 1pm – 5pm, Tuesday – Saturday. Closed for Easter and Christmas.
Address: University College London, Malet Place, London WC1E 6BT
Transportation: The Museum is about a six minute walk from the Euston Square Station, which is serviced by the Hammersmith and City, Circle, and Metropolitan lines, and a ten minute walk from Russell Square Station, which is serviced by the Piccadilly Line.
If you’re planning on visiting the museum with kids, be sure to ask for a Young Archeologist Pack at the front desk. These packs are free and contain a Young Archeologist Guide Book and a Family Trail, which are yours to take home. They also include a flashlight, a magnifying glass, a ruler, and a notebook so that your budding archeologist can take notes in the field, shine light in dark corners, and find those teeny tiny details that others might have missed.
If you have mobility issues or have a buggy or pushchair with you, I would recommend entering the museum through the UCL Science Library. Upon reaching the museum, call up using the intercom next to the front door and inform the front of house staff member that you will need access to the elevators. From there, head just next door to the Science Library where Petrie staff will call and inform library security that you require admission to the museum and they will let you into the library where you will then be able to take the elevator to the first floor where you’ll be able to enter the museum through the Pottery Gallery.
If you’re a teacher interested in resources for schools or if you’d simply like to find out more about the collection, visit the “Research and Learning” page on the Petrie Museum website to find resource packs as well as access to “Digital Egypt”, which is a free online learning resource. The Petrie Museum website also provides access to the museum’s online catalogue, which contains digital records of all 80,000 artifacts within the collection.
Katherine Roberts is a recent graduate of University College London’s “Museums and Galleries in Education” Master’s Program. Originally from Philadelphia, she has lived in London since 2015 and is passionate about history, especially that of the Second World War, and the role that museums can play as a place to make history immediate and compelling and to challenge visitors’ notions of what history is and who contributes to it. She will begin a PhD program at University of Manchester on the history of nursing during WWII in September 2019.