British Museum blog

A famous feline travels far north….

Bronze figure of a seated cat

Neal Spencer, and Claire Messenger, British Museum

As the exquisite copper alloy figurine of a cat, inlaid with silver and adorned with gold jewellery, was carefully placed in the showcase, we wondered whether pharaonic objects had ever been seen this far north. Not in the UK, but elsewhere? Lerwick, site of the Shetland Museum and Archives lies at 60°15’N, eclipsing St Petersburg, and its Hermitage Museum, but also Helsinki, Uppsala and Bergen.

Claire Messenger and Neal Spencer put the finishing touches on the display

Claire Messenger and Neal Spencer put the finishing
touches to the display

This collaboration is one of a series of ‘spotlight loans’ of iconic British Museum objects to museums across the UK, supported by the Art Fund. The Shetland Museum opened in 2007, with state of the art security and climate control, combining historic boat sheds with a new building overlooking Hay Dock. Galleries within explore the history and cultures of the islands, alongside space for temporary exhibitions. The British Museum collaborated on the loan of the Lewis Chessmen last year, objects with a clear Scottish history. But why send an Egyptian cat?

The loan allows audiences that might never
visit museums with Egyptian collections to appreciate first hand the exquisite quality of ancient Egyptian bronze-working, while also evoking the mysterious nature of Egyptian religion, where gods could be depicted as animals. Schools in England typically teach ancient Egypt, but this is not normally the case in Shetland. The cat’s arrival has prompted some Shetland teachers to introduce the subject, and hundreds of schoolchildren are booked in to see the display in the coming months. And, as in London or Paris (the only cities to have ever seen the cat since it first appeared in Cairo in 1934) many of the visitors I met also professed to an obsession with cats. Ancient Egypt and felines: a potent mix!

Bronze figure of a seated cat, from Saqqara, Egypt Late Period, after 600 BC

Bronze figure of a seated cat, from Saqqara, Egypt Late Period, after 600 BC

But this was no pet. The statue represents a goddess, most likely Bastet, and was probably set up in a temple dedicated to her. As the original base of the figure is lost, we will probably never know who donated the statue to a temple, though the size, quality and precious adornments of this cat suggest it was a wealthy individual, perhaps even a king. In return, the donor might have hoped for a long life, children or a good burial, gifts the goddess could bestow on an individual. More prosaically, the donor would surely have enhanced his or her reputation among their contemporaries.

The display also highlights the work undertaken by museum scientists, which revealed the extensive repairs Gayer-Anderson undertook on the cat.

British Museum objects from ancient Egypt can also currently be seen in two partnership galleries, in Newcastle and Glasgow, while the touring exhibition Pharaoh: King of Egypt, is currently on display in Birmingham.

The Gayer-Anderson Cat is on display at Shetland Museum and Archives until December 9

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  1. Campbell@Manchester says:

    Reblogged this on Egypt at the Manchester Museum and commented:
    Great blog about the display of the BM’s iconic Gayer Anderson cat… in Shetland!


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You can now discover thousands of British Museum objects in partnership with @googleartproject at We’ve asked staff members to highlight their favourites and explain what makes them special. Chris Spring, Curator of Africa Collections, describes why he finds the ‘Throne of weapons’ so powerful. ‘This war memorial celebrates the ordinary people of Mozambique, many of them unarmed, who stood up to a culture of violence. It represents both a human tragedy and a human triumph. The Throne's essential humanity is suggested right away by its anthropomorphic qualities - it has arms, legs, a back and most importantly a face - actually two faces. My first reaction was that these faces are crying in pain, though they could also be seen as smiling faces finally freed from conflict. These anthropomorphic qualities also link it immediately to the arts of Africa, in which non-figurative objects such as chairs, stools, weapons, pots etc are seen as - and described as - human beings. The Throne has toured the world, taking its message of peace to schools, churches, shopping centres and even prisons – and of course, to museums and galleries.’ #MuseumOfTheWorld We’re celebrating our partnership with @googleartproject, and have asked curators to tell us about their favourite objects. Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings, explains why he chose this chalk drawing by Michelangelo. ‘One of the things I love about drawings is the way they sometimes allow a glimpse into the private, behind the scenes world of an artist, one unseen in finished works in paint or stone. An example of that is a red chalk drawing by Michelangelo of grotesque heads in red chalk that reveal that the Florentine Renaissance artist had a lively, if caustic, sense of humour. The three heads were probably drawn to amuse but at the same instruct his pupils, as the three studies show how slight changes can radically alter the reading of an image with the character and mood of each figure (paranoid anxiety; vacuous joy; and depressive gloom) signalled by the position and erectness of their donkey-like ears.  I wish my ears were as expressive.’ Discover many more incredible works of art in the Google Cultural Institute at

#Michelangelo #art To celebrate our partnership with @googleartproject, we’ve asked members of British Museum staff to highlight their favourite objects and explain what makes them special. Jill Cook, Deputy Keeper of Britain, Europe & Prehistory, chose this stone chopping tool from an early human campsite in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. ‘Holding this 2 million year old African tool in my hand I am reminded that whatever differences exist between people now, we are united by our common origin in Africa. The discovery of this piece by Louis Leakey in 1931 began to change our understanding of what makes us human. It illustrates the beginning of a transition from an ancestral ape that walked upright on two legs within the confines of a limited ecological niche to humans with more complex brains capable of changing and eventually dominating the world around us by making tools and weapons. This chopping tool is one of the seeds from which all human cultures and societies have grown.’ Discover the stories of thousands of objects in the Google Cultural Institute at

#MuseumOfTheWorld In Victorian England many people were fascinated by their past, and the ancient tribal leader Caratacus (also spelt Caractacus) was adopted as a symbol of national pride and independence. Like Boudica, Caratacus resisted the Roman invasion of Britain. Although he was eventually defeated, he earned a reputation as a noble and worthy foe. The Victorian sculptor J H Foley portrays him here standing triumphant, the embodiment of courageous English spirit. See this incredible #Movember moustache in our #Celts exhibition, until 31 January 2016.
J H Foley (1818–1874), Caractacus. Marble, 1856–1859. On loan from Guildhall Art Gallery/Mansion House, City of London. Some more #Movember inspiration! Here’s the Museum’s security team from 1902 photographed on the front steps. They include officers from the Metropolitan Police, and the London Fire Brigade (identified by their flat caps). We’re celebrating #Movember with Museum moustaches great and small. Here’s a #Movember fact: Peter the Great of Russia introduced a beard tax in 1698 and this token was given as proof of payment!

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