This week, our guest blogger Katherine Piper is back from Italy to tell us her thoughts on the Museo Egizio in Turin. The largest Egyptian heritage museum outside of Egypt, the Museo Egizio’s history stretches back to the earliest days of Egyptology. In addition to the famous so-called Turin King-List, the museum is well-known for its royal statuary and its display of the complete tomb assemblages from the intact tomb of Kha and Meryet at Deir el-Medina.
Guest Scribe: Katherine Piper
As a long-time student of ancient Egypt, the Museo Egizio has been on my bucket list of Egyptological destinations for several years now as the oldest and one of the largest Egyptian collections outside of Egypt. The museum recently underwent extensive refurbishment with the galleries and displays being overhauled and re-opened to visitors in its new format in 2015. I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture in London given by the museum’s director, Dr. Christian Greco, about the refurbishment at the time. I was not only interested to see the collection, but also to see how it was presented given its relatively recent redesign. As the museum’s collection is so vast, I’m not going to attempt to review the entire museum, but highlight aspects which I thought were particularly impressive.
Early Collectors in Turin and the Collection’s History
The first part of the museum in the basement explains how and why so many ancient Egyptian artefacts came to be in Turin and who was responsible for their transportation. It is a crucial place to start so that visitors can understand the context of what they are about to see. I was very interested to learn that the original core collection was on one side, an accumulation of pieces bought on the international art market by the kings of Savoy, of which Turin was the de facto capital. Carlo Vidua, a count whose name you may have seen carved in very large letters on most of the monuments in Luxor, was also instrumental in this: when I visited the museum, his personal collection of antiquities was on display as a temporary exhibition. The Piedmontese diplomat Bernardino Drovetti, who worked for the French consulate in Egypt in the early Nineteenth Century as the European demand for Egyptian antiquities was exploding, also contributed a sizeable collection to the museum.
Later on, Ernesto Schiaparelli, who became the museum’s director in 1894, founded the Italian Archaeological Mission in 1903 with the specific aim of excavating at sites to acquire antiquities which would fill particular chronological or cultural gaps in the museum’s collection. From a modern perspective, this seems like the height of colonialist cherry-picking, but it is highly commendable that the Museo Egizio is upfront and honest about its former acquisition policies in the first gallery visitors encounter.
Entering the Galleries
The gallery experience proper begins on the top floor of the museum. The material is arranged chronologically, so the visit begins in the Predynastic Period and works its way through the ensuing periods on the top floor. The Middle through the New Kingdoms felt a little rushed, especially considering the wealth of First Intermediate Period tomb assemblages on display (though as the First Intermediate Period is often overlooked in favour of the Old and Middle Kingdoms on either side of it, this is no bad thing). Of course, much museum space is devoted to particular periods or themes is always a curatorial balancing act. Given that two large rooms on the first floor hold the Museo Egizio’s showstopper collection from Deir el-Medina, it makes sense.
The Deir el-Medina collection is truly fantastic. I walked into the gallery and felt like a kid in a sweetshop not knowing which display case to look at first – I wanted to look at all of them at once! The first room contains a selection of material which represents all the different aspects of life and work in the village and the Valley of the Kings. The second room contains the entire contents of the tomb of Kha and Meryet. There is also a small café at the end of the Kha and Meryet gallery selling a variety of hot and cold drinks, cakes, and pastries. Whoever thought of putting a café here is a genius because by this stage of the visit, you really do need a break before resuming your visit to the Third Intermediate Period for the fabulous coffin gallery.
Thoughts on the Displays
Something which impressed me was that every display of human remains was prominently marked with a red triangle with a picture of a mummy on a top corner of the display case and an information panel. This way, visitors can choose to avoid these displays if they so wish. The red triangle markers are particularly effective in a busy museum as they can be seen from a distance, so for those who don’t desire to see human remains on display, visitors are properly warned. The ethics of displaying human remains in museums is a contentious topic, but, personally, I thought everything in the Museo Egizio was displayed thoughtfully and respectfully.
For me, one of the most impressive things about the Museo Egizio was that wherever possible, material was presented as it was found, e.g. tomb assemblages are displayed with the objects from the tomb group rather than laid out individually and deprived of their holistic context. Much of this work was possible thanks to the notes of Schiaparelli’s assistant Virginio Rosa – and a lot of careful archive work. I think the decision to make the museum fit the material rather than vice-versa really raises the level of the visitor experience.
An excellent interactive feature throughout the museum is the series of “Egizio Essenziale” scent boxes in which visitors can sample scents which formed part of the ancient Egyptians’ world. The boxes come with a short explanation: you can breathe in the scent of cedarwood whilst looking at coffins, or frankincense and myrrh whilst admiring temple statues of Sekhmet – and what is more evocative and transportive than smell? There are vents at different levels on these scent boxes to make them as accessible as possible.
The Hall of Kings
Overall, the museum strikes the right balance between singular displays of smaller objects and displays of item groups to retain as much of their original context as possible. The temptation to be grandiose is resisted until the final two rooms of the tour: the Hall of Kings, where the museum’s collection of monumental statuary is displayed in truly spectacular fashion. These rooms (designed by a movie set designer) have low lighting save for the spotlights focused on the statues and multiple floor-to-ceiling mirror panels. As grand finales go, it’s hard to beat this display. There is also a small room off the Hall of Kings which contains pieces from Nubia including the rock-cut Ellesiya Temple. It was carved during the reign of Thutmose III and was one of the temples saved from the rising waters of Lake Nasser during the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. I found it very strange to be standing in what was unmistakably an Egyptian rock-cut chapel in a museum in Turin, Italy – but far better than to have the temple only be accessible by diving!
I travelled all the way from the UK to Turin to photograph 3,000-year-old furniture for research (as one does). My research is based on my fieldwork as part of the South Asasif Conservation Project on the west bank of Luxor, where my job is to work with the thousands of fragments of painted ceiling from the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty tomb of Karakhamun (TT 223). Part of my research covers the history and development of the patterns used to decorate tomb-chapel ceilings prior to the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty including contexts in which the same patterns were used to decorate things other than ceilings. I knew that there were several wooden chests from the Eighteenth Dynasty tomb of the Deir el-Medina architect Kha and his wife Meryet on display at the Museo Egizio in Turin which were decorated with these ‘ceiling’ patterns, so it seemed like a perfect excuse to visit. The real strength of the Museo Egizio, however, is not just the breadth and quality of its collection, but the thought and care put into the displays and the value added to the visitor experience by features like the scent boxes. Visit if you can – this is a museum that really wants you to enjoy it.
Katherine Piper earned a BA and MA in Egyptian Archaeology from University College London and is currently studying for an MRes in Egyptology at the University of Birmingham. She has been a volunteer for the Egypt Exploration Society since 2012 and a mission member of the South Asasif Conservation Project since 2013. You can find her on Twitter at @katieglyph.
All photos are courtesy of Katherine Piper.