Fitzwilliam Museum Travels to Egypt with ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant

Julie Dawson, Head of Conservation at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge travelled to Egypt in November 2019 with an ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant.  This is the report from Julie’s visit.

Since January 2019, the Fitzwilliam Museum Coffins team has been working on a capacity-building project with curators and conservators in the Egyptian Museum Cairo (EMC).  The aim is to develop and implement professional research-based training and support for interdisciplinary study, documentation and interpretation of the EMC’s internationally significant collection of coffins.  This project culminated in a 4-day practical workshop in Cairo in June 2019 on coffin production and decoration.  In July 2019, also in Cairo, we introduced our Egyptian colleagues to the ‘pop-up’ museum, an outreach initiative in which we have been taking our coffins’ research into areas of social deprivation and low cultural provision in Cambridgeshire.

Julie Dawson (far right) with the pop-up team

We were subsequently asked to do the workshop for museum professionals and academics in Alexandria and the ‘pop-up’ out and about in Damietta, which is the centre of modern-day furniture production in Egypt.  For this November visit we planned that our Egyptian/UK teams would co-deliver all the events so that we could move a step closer to a key aim of our programme: to establish an Egyptian peer-to-peer training network for curators and conservators.  My colleague Helen Strudwick (Associate Curator, Ancient Egypt) and I travelled over to Egypt for the Fitzwilliam.

The workshop was held at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.  Although designed for 20 participants, we were pleased to extend it to 38 attendees, made up from curators and conservators of the Antiquities Museum – Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the Alexandria National Museum, the Royal Jewellery Museum, the Rashid National Museum, the Zahi Hawass Centre for Egyptology, the Egyptian Museum Cairo and the Ministry of Antiquities.

Dr Nour Mohamed Badr shows woodwork examples to staff at Pinocchio.
Dr Nour Mohamed Badr shows woodwork examples to staff at Pinocchio.

Mr Amr Orensa of Pinocchio Furniture (who had hosted one of the Cairo pop-ups at his furniture shop) arranged pop-ups at a sports club and the public library in Damietta.  Through these, we encountered a huge number of Egyptian families and made contact with the Dean of the Faculty of Applied Arts, Damietta University and many of his students, and with the regional Chief Inspector of Antiquities and his deputy, who introduced us to the work of their archaeologists at Tal El-Deir in Damietta.  Another aim of our trip was to see the work of contemporary carpenters, so we were pleased to visit boat-builders in Alexandria where we documented woodworking carried out by craftsmen in this declining industry.  I also visited traditional carving and gilding workshops in Damietta and we presented the pop-up to workers at the Pinocchio furniture factory.

The 2-day workshop began with curatorial approaches to coffins and then turned to technology and the critical role that this plays in understanding the development and meaning of coffins.  We concentrated on construction, discussing the properties of woods used, demonstrating replica tools, examining joints, tool marks and other signs of carpentry practice.  Case study presentations were followed by assessment of coffins in the galleries of the Antiquities Museum and time trying out the tools – crucial for understanding the craftsman’s practice and the challenges his material presented.

Visitors to the Damietta Library ‘pop-up’ museum try painting with replica brushes that they have made.
Visitors to the Damietta Library ‘pop-up’ museum try painting with replica brushes that they have made.

After Alexandria, Helen and I pursued our own coffins’ research in the EMC and I then travelled to Damietta with Egyptian woodwork expert Dr Geoffrey Killen and his wife Lorraine for the ‘pop-up’ museum.

This is a table-top display of tools, a replica of a dog coffin (which can be disassembled), samples of pigments used in Pharaonic Egypt and materials to make rush pens and brushes based on ancient Egyptian originals and then use them for painting.  Short films showing different aspects of carpentry, pigment-making and coffin decoration run from an iPad.  We also had a newly published Arabic version of our book ‘How to make an Egyptian coffin’[1] to show and to give away.

For both the workshop and the pop-ups, the principal challenges were logistical in terms of set-up and having sufficient time for detailed briefings with the team, but these were more than counterbalanced by the excitement, energy and enthusiasm of both our collaborators and the very many professional and public participants in the events.

Fig. 2 Workshop participants try out the mortise chisel and mallet.

Co-presenting a professional workshop with our Cairo colleagues[1] was a new experience.  Together we identified where shifts of emphasis and timing in the programme were needed and specific areas in which to build skills and confidence, such as in-depth coaching on the ancient carpentry skills for the presenters, and more detailed practical sessions at the workshops.  The latter came from attendee feedback.  They told us that they had gained an understanding of Egyptian woodwork features that they had never considered before; they wanted even more opportunity within the workshop to explore the practicalities of making and how to apply this to their own research and teaching.

Another new experience was taking our outreach model beyond Cairo to a provincial setting with less cultural provision and less familiarity with ancient Egyptian artefacts.  Our Egyptian co-presenters[2] were not so familiar with the very direct individual contact that is the basis of the pop-up and were initially hesitant.  However, they gained confidence and technique quickly as they witnessed the engagement generated by the demonstrations and practical activities, realising that it is the knowledge and skills acquired from their own studies and research that creates this level of excitement in the public.

My key point of advice to others embarking on working internationally would be to make sure that your preparation is meticulous, but be prepared to adapt and change everything once you are there on the ground.  Find out who the key local official contacts are and engage with them face to face.  If a scoping visit is not possible in advance then try to do this digitally, for example through widely-available platforms such as WhatsApp and Skype.  Whatever the aims of your plan, ask everyone you meet on your trip what they want to get out of the initiative.

Establishing a trusted local enabler who can work with you throughout and who understands your project and, if possible, who has a good command of your native language as well as their own can massively reduce miscommunication!  Finally, make sure that you have a rigorous methodology for collecting feedback and try to get this feedback from people who have engaged with you in every role in each part of your work – as participants, visitors, hosts, enablers, drivers etc.  Every perspective has something to contribute.

We have set up WhatsApp groups with the participants of our Cairo and Alexandria workshops and are developing a lively correspondence and exchange of ideas and experience with both.

Fig. 1 Eid Rezk Mertah and Mohamed Ibrahim demonstrate the bow-drill.

Two of our co-presenters from the November events are working on the delivery of a mini-workshop targeted at a small group of antiquities staff who operate in relative professional isolation in the Western Desert.  Other colleagues are working on taking the pop-up to schools in the Cairo area.  Now we need to develop the ‘hardware’ of the pop-up (e.g. table covers, banners, covers for the tools) to make it more durable and more easily transportable.  We also need additional ‘sets’ of everything.

For the development and delivery of specialist training and public outreach to become an Egyptian peer-to-peer network and truly sustainable, more participants from Cairo and Alexandria need to come forward.  Our central, core presenters are using the digital groups to advocate and encourage.  We are providing support remotely and digitally and specific training.  Funding is essential but, as these activities become increasingly homegrown, the costs are low relative to the considerable professional and public reach and benefit within Egypt.  We are actively seeking sponsorship.

We also have a major extension to the project.  We were asked by the EMC to develop a workshop and pop-up on Roman-Egyptian mummy portraits.  These will be delivered in Cairo and in the Fayum (where most mummy portraits were made) in 2020 using funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund (which also supported our initial project in Cairo in 2019).

Fig. 3 Participants examine a coffin in the galleries of the Museum of Antiquities, Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

For the Fitzwilliam, all these events have further broadened the impact of our coffins’ research and helped us refine the way we talk about it.  For our curatorial and conservation colleagues from Cairo, there has been a realisation that both fellow professionals and the public have a great appetite to engage directly with their research.  They are now eager to embrace more opportunities to bring this out into a wider arena.  For both the museum professionals in Alexandria and the pop-up visitors in Damietta, our joint team provided new insights and engendered genuine excitement and enthusiasm for the stories coffins can tell through their technology.

In terms of the impact of the visit on my professional development, I realised in this visit that one of the most important development tasks for me now is to improve my spoken Arabic: I am already taking the necessary steps!

“Perhaps our most important priority at the Fitzwilliam is to ensure that the benefit of our collections-based research is felt as widely as possible. The Egyptian coffins’ project has already established a range of professional and public outreach activities both at home in the UK and in Egypt. But this latest visit took our work into new territory reaching an even wider audience, away from Cairo, to organisations and communities which have fewer opportunities than in the capital for direct communication with the people who investigate their country’s ancient artefacts. Delivering this outreach with Egyptian curators and conservators, and gathering feedback from them and from visitors to the pop-up events, has given us new insights and impetus for our future work expanding the impact of our research.”

Luke Syson, Director and Marlay Curator, Fitzwilliam Museum

[1] J. Dawson. 2018. How to make an Egyptian coffin: the construction and decoration of Nespawershefyt’s coffin set. Cambridge: Fitzwilliam Museum. Released in Arabic translation by Sara Hany Abed, November 2019.

[1] Conservators Eid Rezk Mertah, Mohamed Ibrahim and Dr Nour Mohamed Badr. Curators Moustafa Saad Ahmed and Gehad Shawky Ali.

[2] Conservators Mohamed Ragab, Adel Mohamed and Dr Nour Mohamed Badr. Curators Moustafa Saad Ahmed and Rania Diaa. Museum consultant and our local ‘enabler’ Sara Hany Abed.