Bolton's Egypt, Bolton Museum and Art Gallery
Campbell Price, 01.01.2019
Campbell Price steps into the world of pharaohs, sphinxes and pyramids, and emerges impressed
Bolton Museum and Art Gallery’s new Egypt galleries open with an important word – “obsession”. The golden word hovers above the first object visitors see, a richly gilded mummy mask. Egyptologists such as myself sometimes get embarrassed by the public popularity of our subject, but some museums embrace it.
Collections such as Bolton’s grew out of a widespread obsession among do-gooders of wealthy Victorian industrial centres, especially in the north-west of England. Bolton holds some 10,000 archaeological objects excavated from Egypt and Sudan, and is one of the largest regional collections in the UK.
Bolton’s much-loved old Egypt gallery used to contain around 600 objects, but the newly refurbished suite of five spaces – which opened in September 2018 – present some 2,000 items. This abundance of objects forms a key theme in the galleries. It’s an attempt not only to visibly reflect the volume of the collection, but also to highlight strengths, such as small domestic items, textiles and fragmentary sculpture.
My abiding reaction to the new spaces is positive. As an Egyptologist, it is unavoidable to criticise the displays a little, but it is worth emphasising the overriding feeling of wonder and delight at seeing them – they are so much more light, bright, colourful and immersive than the previous gallery.
First up, the gilded mummy mask asks us if it is its glitz that has attracted us. Of course it is. This relatively small introductory space, wallpapered with a design inspired by the original building, creates the intimate feeling of a Victorian parlour – exactly the sort of context in which items were often originally displayed or examined when they arrived in the UK.
A bold flatscreen plays excerpts of Egypt-inspired movies and television shows that connect the concept of Egyptomania with popular culture familiar to most modern visitors. Egypt-inspired 19th- and 20th-century designs range from travel posters to condom packages.
Particularly striking is the eye-catching red of a 19th-century British soldier’s uniform, hinting at the colonial context in which most of these acquisitions were made.
A connected space contextualises Bolton’s collection in terms of its main driving personalities – notably the formidable Egyptologist Annie Barlow – and the architectural setting of the original museum, through a lightbox ceiling and a giant doll’s house.
Indeed, I was sceptical when I saw mock-ups of a plastic tree and grass in an initial designer’s sketch of the renovated space, but, in reality, this environment is delightfully unexpected and I wanted to sit down and have a picnic.
Focus on life and death
The main gallery is composed of a series of glass arches, packed with a rich array of material that is grouped around broad themes of life – such as “beauty” and the more colloquial “admin” and “tech”.
The material is from various dates between 3000 BC and the first centuries AD, and has minimal labelling, which is sure to irk specialists, but it is one of the most effective illustrations of the physical composition of a collection I have seen.
Additional, lengthy text is present, too, and easier to dip into than in a digital form. The walls carry big, colourful pastiches of Egyptian wall scenes. Reports from some colleagues that this is “aimed at children” are misguided and make more assumptions about the nature of Egyptian art itself than about the Bolton designers, especially as the accompanying text is generally informative.
There are also several old-fashioned physical interactives, including a ship race and model maps. There is no digital element at all and of all the children I observed in the gallery, not one looked bored.
An unavoidable focus, given the dominance of surviving tomb objects, is life, death, the transition from one to the other and preparations for the afterlife. This is tackled in a more traditional gallery space, but with dramatic lighting. In contrast to the mostly fragmentary archaeological remains elsewhere, the final section, the tomb, is a surprisingly immersive replica of a royal burial chamber in the Valley of the Kings.
Few visitors may have been to the original tomb, that of the “Napoleon of Ancient Egypt” Thutmose III (c.1479-25BC), which is difficult to access. To fill the Egyptological hole, a superb short animated film is on show in Thutmose III’s recreated tomb.
Encapsulating the fundamental purpose of the decoration of the chamber, the film significantly supplements the other interpretation, which seems deliberately unobtrusive. The device of an animation enthrals children and adults, and is a powerful explanatory tool.
Does it matter that most people will think the corpse is Thutmose III himself? Or that they may assume the tomb is real, moved block by block from Egypt, as in the plot of a film seen in the introductory gallery? Or that the popular cast of the Nefertiti bust (now in Berlin) is not the real deal? Probably not. But has an opportunity been lost to engage with the concept of authenticity.
Bolton attracted scandal in the early noughties due to the infamous fake Amarna Princess sculpture, which was carved in a Bolton shed and authenticated by Christie’s and the British Museum.
Bolton Council bought the statue in 2003 before it was revealed to be a forgery. The Amarna Princess is now displayed in the museum’s first gallery. She has been more popular since being unmasked as a forgery than she was as a real piece of ancient art – thanks no doubt to public relish at a conman hoodwinking experts. I feel Bolton Museum could have made a bit more of this fascinating case.
While there are some statements and selections that my fellow Egyptologists may contest, the overall effect of Bolton’s Egypt is impressive. Contrary to the usually negative press that local authorities receive about their cultural decisions, these galleries represent a major investment by Bolton Council in culture. That is to be applauded and ought to be held up as a positive exemplar.
The displays also avoid parochialism – local stories for local people – given significant local government support and the naming of galleries such as “Bolton’s Art”, “Bolton’s Egypt”.
The take-home impression is of connectedness with, rather than isolation from, the world.
Having tapped so effectively into the collective modern obsession with ancient Egypt, Bolton Museum deserves to attract even more of the world.
Campbell Price is the curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum, University of Manchester
Focus on interpretation
The refurbished galleries at Bolton Museum showcase more than 2,000 ancient Egyptian objects spanning more than 6,000 years of history. This much-loved collection connects on an emotional level with our audiences, who tell us of their lifelong relationship with the objects.
We knew our approach to interpretation had to be as brave and bold as our artistic design. Knowing that more than 70% of our visitors are families informed the decision to use vibrant, colourful and friendly interpretive design.
The Land and People Gallery houses two 26-foot illustrative scenes that navigate visitors through the space naturally. The beautifully detailed scenes are accompanied by informative but deliberately informal contextual information.
Much of the written interpretation sits outside of the glass arches, so visitors have an unrestricted view of the objects.
Early in the design process we decided not to use heavy digital interpretation. Other than a specially commissioned piece of animation and a showreel on how pop culture is influenced by Egyptomania,all the interactives are tactile, playful installations that include a donkey derby, 3D map, jigsaws, dress up and a doll’s house.
We know that people respond positively to personal interpretation, so we have invested time in training staff and volunteers to have the confidence to engage visitors in conversations about our new Egypt displays.
Sam Elliott is the crescent and collections manager at Bolton Council