The Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy, presents both itself and its world-renowned collection of Egyptian antiquities as a palimpsest. Founded at the birth of Egyptology, the museum is almost stratigraphic in its approach to its own history; the theft of antiquities, the rise and fall of the gentlemen collector, the display of human remains and the role of museums in society. More importantly, and perhaps best of all, the museum is determined to show you how its understanding of its collection has changed.
The collection first came into being in 1824. Though he had initially offered his collection elsewhere, the Piedmontese diplomat Bernardino Drovetti, who had worked for the French consulate in Egypt in the early nineteenth-century, eventually sold 5,268 Egyptian antiquities to King Charles Felix of Sardinia. This collection (pictured at top: The Drovetti Collection on the ground floor of the Museo Egizio by Marco Nicolosino, 1832) included nearly 200 papyri, most notably the Papyrus of Kings, which is the most complete list of kings written by the Ancient Egyptians, and the Strike Papyrus, which provides unparalleled insight into political and economic difficulties during the Ramesside Period. Famous statues from the collection include the Kneeling Statue of Amenhotep II, which can be seen in display sketches at the Palazzo dell'Accademia delle Scienze as early as 1832.
In 1833, the museum received the collection of Giuseppe Sossio, which consisted of more than 1,200 artefacts. Later, Egyptologist and Director of the Museo Egizio Ernesto Schiaparelli supplemented and enriched the collection with the discoveries he made during his excavations from 1900 to 1920. These famously include the in toto Theban tomb of Kha and Merit, and grave goods from the Tomb of Queen Nefertari in Deir el-Medina in the Valley of the Queens.
As efforts were made by Egyptian authorities to stem the flow of antiquities out of the country, the quantity of material entering the museum’s stores naturally declined. However, following the international effort to save the monuments of Nubia prior to the building of the Aswan Dam, the Egyptian Government presented Italy with the Temple of Ellesyia as a token of thanks. This is one of the last major donations to the collection.
Spread over four floors, the Museo Egizio guides the visitor through a history of Ancient Egypt from the Predynastic Period to the end of the Ottoman Empire. However, before one steps foot in 6000 BCE, the museum presents its own history. The museum is keen for its visitors to understand how and why so many Egyptian artefacts ended up in Turin, relaying much of what is recounted in the above section through the photographs, field notes and correspondence of Egyptologist attached to the museum. Utilising their old display cabinets, several “cabinets of curiosity” are set up with wall plaques highlighting how the “gentlemen collector” came to be and why crammed and poorly labelled displays are no longer the norm.
From there, visitors are taken to the top floor of the museum. The Predynastic Period and the early dynasties are stretched along the fourth floor, with thousands of lapis lazuli and pottery ushabti watching over the visitors. As the visitors work their way down the levels they will encounter dozens of mummies, hundreds of metres of papyri, jewels, beads and ornaments of every description and even intact tombs and temples.
On the ground floor, the museum nods once more to the origins of the museum. The Galleries of the Kings is an impressive, albeit dramatic, gallery. With deep red floors and mirrored walls, the colossal statues of sandstone and basalt loom over the visitors. The low lighting adds to the drama of this gallery, not only reminding visitors of the magnitude and splendour of the statues in their midst, but subtly reminding them that though grand, cabinet of curiosities style displays may be superficially beautiful, they do make learning rather hard.
When the Museo Egizio reopened after extensive remodelling in 2015, museum practice became a focal point of display. In recent decades, museums have served as the unavoidable battleground for conversations surrounding the display and care of the dead. Academics and visitors alike proved eager to interrogate why human remains were in museums, why they were being displayed the way that they were, and why there were so many remains in storage. Museo Egizio has taken two innovative approaches.
The first approach, though small, is impossible to miss. Tacked to the corner of glass display cases or next to wall plaques at the entrance of smaller galleries, are red and white “human remains” signposts. These signs alert visitors to the fact that human remains are displayed in that space, enabling those who wish to avoid such an encounter to skip over that display. In 2019, the museum also set up suggestion boxes which asked visitors to think about the display of human remains at the museum and share their thoughts for improvement.
The second innovation is visible storage and conservation labs. Though by no means the entirety of the museum's storage facilities nor the extent of their conservation labs, the museum’s main display galleries now feature glass windows that allow visitors to take a peek at what literally happens behind the scenes. This has facilitated not only a better understanding of museum practice and care within the wider community but has proved incredibly successful with children and school groups.
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Madalyn is an Australian repatriation practitioners and early career researcher focused on collecting histories, museum praxis, and the role of emotion in informing affective heritage management.