Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The Petrie Museum | Overview

Unlike the other two institutions in this series, I feel that the Petrie may be less familiar to readers and deserving of a dedicated introduction. The Petrie owes much to Amelia Edwards, the successful novelist and passionate Egyptologist. When the department of Egyptology was set up in what is now University College London, the core teaching collection was donated by Edwards. The first Professor of the Department, William Matthew Flinders Petrie, excavated many important sites in Egypt and much of his collection has been preserved here. The author of the Wikipedia article on the museum quite rightly descries it as ‘one of the leading collections outside Egypt’. However, this statement doesn’t really get to the heart of what sets the Petrie apart from other museums. While other institutions may have ‘better’ displays, the Petrie is in a league of its own for displaying material that simply wouldn’t be seen elsewhere – small items, broken items, tiny fragments of ordinary lives. Sure, the big gorgeous pieces you can see at, say, the British Museum are fantastic, but there is something completely unique in the Petrie. Its cramped displays hold so many wonderous objects that were, in most cases, excavated by Petrie and his teams. They’re rarely ‘perfect’ or ‘museum quality’ pieces, but they are much more representative of the kinds of materials found on actual excavations. For me, there is even an attraction in the fact that the museum has so little actual storage space that the walls are lined with the cabinets containing the non-display portions of the archives. There is something breath-taking (for me, anyway) about looking at pieces from Petrie’s excavations at Amarna, only to turn around and see that the rest of the archive is stored just inches away. It may be an effect derived from necessity, but it is no less evocative for that.

Bust of Amelia Edwards, with Flinders Petrie in the background
One of my favourite memories of visiting the Petrie was when I was told that, for some reason, there were no lights in the pottery collection. Instead, I was offered a torch and allowed to go explore off into the darkness. It was a simply thrilling way to reacquaint myself with these wonderful collections and a great way to discover previously overlooked pieces.

In this post I’m going to confine myself to a few overviews of the galleries. Hopefully, these will whet the appetite for further posts on this blog and (more importantly) convince you to go visit in person [Webpage | Facebook (unofficial) | Twitter].

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