British Museum blog

130 objects, 3,000 years of history: pharaoh exhibition opens

Margaret Maitland, British Museum

In just under two weeks, over 3,000 years of history – in the shape of 130 objects – has been installed at the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle upon Tyne for the British Museum UK touring exhibition Pharaoh: King of Egypt. The objects span almost the entire extent of ancient Egyptian history, from an exquisite ebony label belonging to one of the very first rulers of Egypt to a monument depicting the Roman Emperor Tiberius as an Egyptian pharaoh.

The exhibition focuses on the kings of Egypt, but there is an incredibly diverse selection of objects, which presented a wide range of challenges in the installation. Among the objects is a tiny pendant of King Senusret II that transforms the hieroglyphs which spell out his name into a decorative piece, delicately crafted from gold and colourful semi-precious stones. To display this beautiful piece of jewellery and other small items, the museum assistants handcraft special mounts for each object.

Pendant of King Senusret II, about 1897-1878 BC.

Pendant of King Senusret II, about 1897-1878 BC.

The monumental objects presented the biggest technical challenges, a task for museum assistants Emily Taylor, Simon Prentice, and Emma Lunn. One of the most fascinating objects to install was the massive wooden statue of Ramses I, which would have stood guard protecting an inner chamber in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Towering two metres high, this massive statue has been skilfully conserved but is still fragile, and it was a slow and cautious operation to remove him from his enormous crate, condition check him, and slowly and carefully manoeuvre him into his case.

Museum assistants from the British Museum move Ramses I into position.

Museum assistants from the British Museum move Ramses I into position.

Ramses’ new home in the exhibition space, designed and built by Tyne & Wear, evokes an Egyptian tomb and temple landscape to convey where many of the objects were found. The exhibition text, created in collaboration between British Museum curator Neal Spencer, Great North Museum manager Sarah Glynn, Tyne & Wear curator Gill Scott, and myself, uses these objects to tell both sides of the story of Egyptian kingship: the powerful image the kings wanted to show their subjects and the rest of the ancient world, and stories they might not have wanted you to hear, about civil wars, palace conspiracies, assassinations, foreign conquerors, and female kings.

On Saturday 16 July, the exhibition opens to the public. It has been an incredible experience working with such a great team and amazing ancient objects and I’m thrilled to think of how many more people will now have the chance to enjoy them.

British Museum Director, Neil McGregor spoke eloquently at the official opening of the importance of this exhibition and others like it in bringing the national collection to people around the UK. Although ancient Egyptian pharaohs preferred to safeguard their power by restricting access to their palaces, temples, and knowledge, this free exhibition will share their splendour through the British Museum collection with audiences all over the country.

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  1. G. Ian Goodson says:

    I have just visited the exhibition in Birmingham. I was exceedingly disappointed with an overpriced and dull waste of an hour. Furthermore, there was a gross inaccuracy that would appear to be supporting the bogus Arab claim that Palestine pre-existed Israel. On the time line you state that one of the Pharoahs conducted campaigns against Nubia and Palestine in 2055 BC. It was, at that point, Canaan. The Sea People, later the Philistines, did not occupy what we now call the Gaza Strip unil the 12th Century BC.

    The name of Palestine was not commonly given to the whole of the land until the Romans ethnically cleansed Israel in 70 AD. Palestine was never an independent Kingdom and did not include any Arabs until after the Islamic conquests. Finally, it was part of the British Mandate and Israel was re-established by the League of Nations and then by the UN in 1947. The Gaza Strip was taken by Egypt and Samaria (West Bank) by Jordan and it has been Arab occupied land since then. Yasser Arafat created the notion of an Arab Palestine after the Arab defeat in 1967.

    It seems that you are colluding in the rewriting of history in order to give an Arab Palestine a bogus history and to deny Israel’s legitimacy. Using Palestine as a substitute for Canaan is disingenuous as you do not explain where Nubia was.

    Will this egregious mistake be corrected or will you continue misleading the public over this politically senstive issue?


    • I am sorry to hear that you did not find the exhibition engaging. In archaeological and Egyptological discourse, ‘Palestine’ (and ‘Syro-Palestine’) refers to an area (broadly from the north of Sinai to Kadesh, and from the Mediterranean to the current Jordan border), not a present or past state. Similarly ‘Nubia’ is an area that overlaps the boundaries of several historic polities, including today.

      “Israel” is generally used to refer to the modern state, and “Israelites” as the group of people first mentioned in ancient texts on the stela of Merenptah in the 13th century BC.

      There is no reference to Arab peoples, or the Palestinian Authority in the exhibition, which would of course be inappropriate given the timeframe covered.

      Please accept our apologies if the wording has caused any offence.

      Neal Spencer, British Museum


      • G. Ian Goodson says:

        I agree that Nubia needs explanation which isn’t given on the timeline. Clearly, Palestine also needs explanation. It is a politically charged term and gives rise to the misconception that Palestine pre-dates Israel.

        You claim that the term is part of archaeological and Egyptological discourse. G.W. Anderson some-time Professor of Hebrew and O.T. Studies at Edinburgh in his book ‘A Critical Introduction to the Old Testament’ ( published 1959 and revised several times till 1972) never refers to the Land as Palestine. Similarly, ‘Bernhard W. Anderson Living World of the Old Testament (2nd Edition 1967)’ which has even more archaeological content that his namesake. Also John Bright ‘A History of Israel’ only uses the term on maps and then not until the Maccabees. By then, some Greek writings were using the term. Hardly surprising, considering the origins of the Philistines. More recently, the Illustrated Bible Dictionary IVP 1980 has an extensive entry for Palestine, but only for geology, geography, agriculture and the like. For history, it cross-refers to Canaan, Israel, Judah and the Philistines. For archaeology, it refers to individual sites. Some entries do use the term Palestine rather loosely but the current revisionism was not really underway in 1980.

        The use of Palestine and Syro-Palestine date from Roman times. This latter term, along with period of Syrian occupation well before the Romans, provide the basis for modern day Syria’s claims to Israel as a province of Syria. These terms are loaded.

        Nubia, was at various times and with various borders, an independent, self-ruling, political entity. Palestine has never been an independent, self-ruling, political entity. Nubia existed in 2055 BC. Palestine did not. To use both words in the same sentence and in the same way must lead to the inference that they are similar entities.

        Currently, the Palestinian Authority, the Waqf and various other ‘scholars’ are promulgating a version of history which eradicates Israel from the Land altogether. Although to any rational scholar this is ridiculous, many people now believe it.

        In Theology, the term ‘myth’ has a precise meaning and does not, necessarily, imply that an event is unhistorical. Most people think it means ‘fairy tale’. When educating the general public one needs to be aware of this sort of misunderstanding.

        I don’t accept that Palestine is a scholarly term, in common scholastic use and (especially since 1947), referring to a particular or general area. You draw its border at the Jordan, but the Britsh Mandate included Trans-Jordan (now the Kingdom of Jordan) and I have maps that include what is now part of Syria. In other words, the term you are using as a general scholarly term is, in fact, politically defined.

        On the time-line Palestine is used to refer to Canaan in 2055 BC. The area you define as Palestine would not include parts of Canaan!

        It’s just too confusing.

        Which is my point. It would have been simple to include a foot-note explaining where Nubia and Canaan were. In the case of Canaan; Israel, the disputed territories and part of Jordan. In the case of Nubia; parts of Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan.

        In the meantime, your exhibition states that Palestine existed in 2055 BC. At best, this is poor scholarship, bad teaching and dangerously ignorant of politics. At worst, it is collusion with those who seek to eradicate Israel ‘from the River to the Sea’. ” (broadly from the north of Sinai to Kadesh, and from the Mediterranean to the current Jordan border) “.

        It is not a matter of offense to me. I am not a Jew or an Israeli. It is a matter of scholarly accuracy and, also, sensitivity to the current and volatile situation in the Land.


  2. G. Ian Goodson says:

    This is a scholarly article on the subject which may help to clarify the argument. The article is good but , unhappily, the web presentation is very poor


  3. G. Ian Goodson says:

    the link was not allowd with HTML


  4. PKSmith says:

    I think this person needs to broaden his horizons and think outside the box of bigotry. Neal Spencer in his reply makes it perfectly clear that this is a non political exhibition. but the person criticing the exhibition reveals his position on the matter through his reading list.


  5. G. Ian Goodson says:

    The exhibition states that Palestine existed in 2055 BC. That is ridiculous. I cite several standard textbooks on the subject matter and one scholarly article found on the internet and posted on site that has a viewpoint. Presumably one of which you disapprove. This is a politically charged subject given the current attempts to eradicate all evidence of Israel ever existing in the Middle East. Where are the narrow horizons or the bigotry?


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