Hieroglyphs in Hull

I have several exhibition reviews to write at the moment. Two from London, two from Hamburg and more in between. However, it is from and about my home city I write today. 17th March saw the opening of a new Egyptian season at Ferens Art Gallery in Hull. The main feature being not one but two exhibitions on the Ancient Egyptian World and our eternal fascination with it. Hull is the first stop of a British Museum Touring Exhibition Egyptian Hieroglyphs: unlock the mystery. Ferens has added to this with an in-house display Tutankhamen: 100 Years of Discovery, making use of Hull’s unique connection to the world of Egyptomania.

Honestly, I did not have high hopes for either exhibit. I am at a point where I feel I’ve seen enough western exhibitions about Egypt, supported by the ‘spookiness’ of mummies and repetitive interpretation. In this century cultural institutions, museums especially, need to look at their collections with questioning eyes, exploring and explaining the nature of their acquisition, asking:

Is this the right place for this heritage to be?And if so, how do we explore this with audiences.

Although the British Museum display at Ferens doesn’t explore this directly, the in-House element does, whether intentionally or by chance, touch on it. So, with all the interpretive and ethical baggage I load on to my expectations of any Egyptian exhibition, I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised by both exhibits for different reasons.

First of all, the British Museum element takes on a very specific area of interest (writing and translation) and approaches it in a refreshingly engaging way. Using simple, low-tech (we need more of this in museums!) interactive tools and accessible text, this exhibit appeals to people at varying levels of interest. Using the translation of the Rosetta Stone as a focal point visitors can explore the importance and value of written language and how easily it can be lost. Whether it is in memorials to lost relatives or epitaphs on the tombs of royalty, from poetry to pancake recipes, we still rely on the written word and this similarity between us and the Ancient Egyptians is at the heart of this exhibition. Imagine if in some distant future the ability to decipher our modern languages was gone? Well, this was the case for Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs for a long time and this display demonstrates the significance of its eventual re-unlocking.

The story of Hieroglyphic translation doesn’t begin with the Rosetta Stone; this exhibition highlights the ‘trail blazers’ who paved the way for their eventual translation and all the wonderful discoveries this enabled. From Plotinus, a Roman Egyptian in the 3rd Century CE to Athanasius Kirchner a German scholar in the 17th Century CE, the opening up of these ancient linguistic treasures was a long-term joint effort.

I’d also like to comment on the fact the British Museum exhibition was not object heavy. It avoided a mistake many museums make, stack a room full of objects and expect the audience to look on in awe. The objects present in this exhibition were perfectly chosen to highlight the importance and unique heritage value of written word. The room dividers, made of cloth with beautiful images printed on were also a lovely, simple touch. The whole display gave the sense of pulling back a curtain to the past while maintaining that connection to today, it was easy to see aspects of ourselves in the Ancient Egyptians, their hope and desires, literally through their own words!

In the next room we enter the Ferens own exhibition which works really well, for two reasons:

Not only does it thematically and visually add to the first exhibition it also serves the function of exploring and explaining the reason Hull is a great place for such a touring exhibition to launch.

Framed by the history of the famous discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, on display are spectacular replicas dating from the 1924 – 25 Wembley Exhibition inspired by Howard Carter’s discovery. The replica objects, now significant social history artefacts in their own right, are a perfect demonstration of western obsession with the ancient world. They were purchased by Hull resident Albert L. Reckitt (from the Reckitt family of pharmaceutical fame) and eventually donated to the City of Hull.

These items are usually on display at the city’s Hands on History Museum which, in addition to needing a complete interpretive rethink, has limited public opening hours. I’ve always felt these items would be better displayed at another site and it’s fantastic they are albeit temporarily. The display methods here are fantastic, the absolutely brilliant choice of not moving ‘the mummy’ which normally accompanies the replicas for this exhibition. It was so refreshing to see the choice of focus being these replicas; their place in British social and cultural history, and most importantly why on earth the ended up in Hull.

The masterstroke of this display was, for me at least, the small viewing holes placed in one of the room dividing walls, which provides audiences with a hint towards the moment in which Howard Carter saw ‘wonderful things’.

I absolutely loved looking through the peepholes and seeing these replica tomb items. Fantastic exhibition design choice 👏

The interpretive text in this display followed the accessible style of the British Museum section, and was perfect for casual visitors while providing jumping off points for those wanting to delve deeper. Even though I have seen these items countless times over the years I never really understood the story behind their place in Hull. The approach by Ferens here, is to interpret not only Egyptian history but more specifically the British (and wider western world) obsession with it. This could be a perfect model for other institutions currently struggling with the ethical questions their collections raise.

There’s no argument about where these replicas belong (unless Wembley gets shirty) they are part of British social history, and in addition serve that double purpose of supporting our understanding of the Ancient World; interacting with school curriculum and indeed touring exhibitions such as it does today. Obviously Hull Museums is in a unique position in having these items, but the idea of shifting our focus to why we are fascinated by Egypt (or wherever really) and how that fascination has manifested in collecting, architecture, fashion and more, is one way in which museums can take the conversation beyond actual act of fascination.

So yes, I really enjoyed both exhibitions. I hope other hosts of the touring element follow the Ferens lead and provide some deeper context to any local connection to Egyptomania or Egyptian/British history more widely. I also hope Hull Museums use some of the fantastic work done here to reframe the items when they return to their usual home.

Massive congratulations to the development teams for both exhibitions and I’ll definitely be back during its run.

Adam Ditchburn-Schulz. 19th March 2023.

See the exhibitions until Sunday 18th June. There are additional supporting events so be sure to check the accompanying programme via the Ferens website. 

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