Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL

Sally MacDonald


Petrie Museum, UCL

Malet Place London WC1E 6BT UK

Invisible transformations

This is not an account of a success, but of a work in progress. Most awards - at least in the UK heritage sector - come in recognition of physical transformations; of dramatic new buildings, or outstanding exhibitions, and they come when the transformation is complete. On these criteria we would win no awards at all; the Petrie Museum - like so many university museums - looks much as it did in the 1950s. With 80,000 objects crammed into two rooms in a former stables, accessed from a goods yard, directly over a large boiler, under a roof that leaks in 13 places, it is the antithesis of an award-winning museum.

The Classic Award for Excellence is not one for which museums can apply - the judges select it themselves. They chose the Petrie Museum ls"because of its consistent determination to keep moving forward, whilst taking up new agendas, for example in learning and the ethics of dealing with human remains. The Petrie demonstrates an excellent model for university museums and good practice to all'. So this award, unusually, recognises transformations in philosophy and practice, changes that can be felt but not seen.

This hidden museum holds one of the world's largest collections of artefacts from Egypt, ranging over 7000 years from prehistory through Pharaonic to Islamic times. It includes spectacular ornamental pieces along with everyday functional items not found in other collections. Exceptionally fi ne sculpture exists alongside mud toys; fi ne ceramics alongside rat traps, exquisite jewellery alongside everyday tunics, socks and sandals. Petrie's notebooks, diaries, journals, watercolours and photographs form part of a signifi cant archaeological archive complementing the artefacts. When I got the job in 1998 I felt as though I had been given a big gold key.

My entire focus over the past eight years, and that of my wonderful colleagues (three paid, many working voluntarily) has been to raise the museum's profi le within its parent institution, UCL. Our stumbling success in doing so has meant that for the fi rst time the museum has a real prospect of beautiful new galleries on campus, where this slow transformation can take physical shape. But this is still four years, and several million pounds, away.

In the meantime, we have concentrated on turning the museum inside out. We began by carrying out detailed market research with users and non-users and identifi ed several potential audiences that were not aware of the museum. These included some rather obvious groups, such as primary schools. They also included people from Egypt, Sudan, and other people of African descent; ls"source communities', one might say. Our dialogues with these groups have been for us some of the most transforming. To give an example, we appointed two outreach offi cers to work with Egyptian and African/ Caribbean communities in London, and initially asked them to develop specifi c resources to bring the museum to these groups. What they did instead was to insist that we change our ls"mainstream' offer to include recognition of Egyptian and African perspectives. As a result we rewrote our schools pack to include sections on challenging stereotypes, and revised our ls"Ancient Egypt' loan box to include modern Egyptian items. We ran anti racism sessions for our staff and volunteers, set up ls"positive action' traineeships and experimented with holding evening openings for Black groups to discuss Egypt in the museum. Much of our work here has been seriously flawed, but we are determined to persist with it.

At the same time we have done what we can to improve online access; the entire collection of 80,000 objects is now online with images, and we have led several projects to digitise Egyptian collections in small UK museums without specialist curators; we believe this helps further to contextualise our own collections and adds to the international knowledge base.

Finally we believe that university museums have particular responsibilities stemming from their academic freedoms. These include the duty to encourage and host debate, to tackle ls"difficult' subjects, to experiment, and to publish. We have been involved in public debates on the display of human remains, the illicit trade in antiquities, and in researching the use of 3D scanning in virtual colour restoration and as a means of monitoring decay.

So while the Petrie Museum may appear embalmed, its new visitors continually transform it.


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