Situated on Swansea University’s Singleton Campus, next to the Taliesin Theatre, the Egypt Centre is an award-winning museum of Egyptological antiquities (the only one in Wales), particularly known for its large and successful volunteer programme. This includes the young Saturday volunteers, who are aged between 10 and 18. In fact, the galleries are staffed mainly by helpful, knowledgeable volunteers, who also run a comprehensive educational programme for schools and other groups.
The museum has been in these purpose-built premises under its current name since 1998, and is home to over 5000 Egyptian artefacts. Its foundation is primarily due to the Wellcome loan, without which the museum would not have been established as the Swansea Wellcome Museum in 1971, first opened to the public in 1976.
Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936) was born into humble circumstances in Wisconsin , and rose to be the head of a leading British pharmaceutical company, and knight of the realm. And he spent all his spare money on obsessive collecting: historical medical items, ethnographic material and Ancient Egyptian items.The Wellcome Trustees were responsible for the distribution of Wellcome’s vast collection following his death: it took them 40 years! The disposal of the Egyptological material was organised by the Petrie Museum (University College London), which received the collection in 1964. Four museums were the main beneficiaries: Birmingham, Durham, Liverpool and Swansea. In 1971, Swansea received over 4500 items, which make up about 80% of the collection.
Starting downstairs, you enter the museum via the well-stocked gift shop, and go into the ‘House of Death’. The focus in this gallery is on Ancient Egyptian gods and beliefs, with particular emphasis on rituals around death and the afterlife. Highlights of this gallery include a painted coffin from the 21st Dynasty, beautiful gilded masks, exquisitely crafted tiny amulets, a mummy bandage from a Victorian ’unrolling’party, stone and clay food offerings to the dead, statuettes of many gods, hundreds of shabtis (servant figures for the dead). Two of the items which move me the most are a tiny coffin and a wooden label. The first is an extremely rare object: a cartonnage (linen or papyrus & plaster) coffin from the Ptolemaic to Roman period, which was thought to be fake as the hieroglyphs are meaningless. However, a CAT scan showed it to contain a 12 to 16 week old foetus. One can only imagine the grief of the woman who gave birth to this child. Sham hieroglyphs may have been used because hieroglyphs were considered to have special, magical powers, although few people could read (or write) them by this date. Another touching symbol of grief is a wooden mummy label inscribed in Greek, from the same period. Here a parent asks a relative to take care of their child when its body arrives home: the child’s body would have been mummified and sent back to the family’s home town for burial, identified by the tag. One thinks of Second World War child evacuees with luggage labels tied to their coat buttons (and Paddington Bear…), or bodies in a morgue, with tags on their toes. You can also admire the scary snake hologram (based on 3D scans of a snake mummy), and take part in mummifying the ever-obliging dummy mummy Bob.
Upstairs (there is a lift too), the landing is home to the children’s play area and family dressing-up rail. The biggest hit here is the Playmobil pyramid, but there are lots of other toys, plus children’s books and drawing materials.
Leading from the landing is the ‘House of Life’, which focuses on daily life, technology and the use of materials in ancient Egypt. It is here that one can truly appreciate the craftsmanship and skill of the ancient Egyptian workers in metal, stone, clay, linen, papyrus, wood, glass and faience (a ceramic material made mainly from silica (sand), which gives a bright lustre). Displays show the development of Egyptian writing systems in the context of the Near East, including mathematical symbols and systems for calculating and measuring. Gasp at the beauty of the miniature Quran, exquisitely turned stone bowls, hand thrown pots, tiny cosmetic jars of faience and stone, with even tinier make-up applicators, and of course the bead jewellery. This includes four intricate collar necklaces from Amarna, a carnelian snake-head anklet, an amethyst scarab bracelet, Egyptian blue faience beads, and a lotus pendant. Admire the bronze crescent shaped blade of a Middle Kingdom battle axe, and the exquisite Coptic embroidery pieces. Wonder at a Victorian gentleman’s cabinet of curiosities brought back from Egypt in 1855, including a tiny metal cone, which he believed to be the summit of the Great Pyramid! Family-friendly activities here include writing your name in hieroglyphs, playing the ancient game of senet, and handling real objects from the collection, dating from 2 000 to 50 000 years old!
The upstairs exit leads to the Taliesin café (check opening times) and toilets. There are also toilets on the ground floor.
The museum is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10-4. Entry is free.
Accessible to wheelchairs. The museum is autism friendly and dementia friendly.
Winner of the Swansea Life tourism award, 2018 and 2019.
Winner of the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service 2018.
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I was born in London, and studied French & German at Bristol University, before taking a Masters and PhD in linguistics at Reading University. During my professional career, I taught and published research on French, linguistics and English language at various universities, including Wolverhampton, Swansea and Queens Belfast. I have lived in Swansea since 1994.
I have always been a keen traveller and museum visitor, and since retiring early, I have volunteered at the Egypt Centre Swansea (from April 2014), where I am a gallery supervisor. I specialise in giving tours to adult visitors. During this time I have carried out research on the languages and writing systems used in Ancient Egypt, on various objects in our collection, as well as the history of collecting, and the use of Ancient Egyptian themes in literature (especially Dylan Thomas) and architecture.
I have published articles on these themes in the Egypt Centre Volunteer Newsletter (of which I am now associate editor) and in Inscriptions, the newsletter of the Friends of the Egypt Centre (see http://www.egypt.swan.ac.uk). I also contribute book and museum reviews. I have given Egyptian themed talks to the Swansea Historical Association, Swansea University Egyptology research group, the Friends of the Egypt Centre, Egypt Centre volunteers and visitors, Norwich U3A, and other local associations.