Breaking all Barriers - The Petrie Museum:

Egyptian Antiquities in a University Museum in the 21st Century

Dr. Stephen Quirke, Curator of the Petri Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College, London, and lecturer in Egyptology at the Institute of Archaeology also at University College. opened his lecture by asking the question, "Why should a museum exist in a university?" He addressed his own question by noting the a museum housed within a university has unique potential in the 21st Century. He speculated that many still have a somewhat ossified view of Ancient Egypt. When looking at the objects one wishes to know; "Where are they from?", "When were they made?", "How were they used?", and most significant, "How do we know?". A museum housed at a university, is key to our ability to answer the last question, "How do we know?". 

The Petrie Museum is named in honor of William Matthew Flinders Petrie, who gave more than five decades of his life to Egypt and Egyptology during which time he was continually writing or digging. He first went to Egypt in his twenties. Petrie was a scientist, a mathematician and artist, and above all an archaeologist. He chose to use his mother's maiden name, Flinders, as she was something of a mystic, and he was very devoted to her. Among a host of significant contributions to archaeology in Egypt, Petrie was the man who developed the sequence dates for the Pre-Dynastic and Old Kingdom periods.

Petrie was not the founder of the museum that bears his name, as 1,000 object in the collection had already been donated by Amelia Edwards, founder of what is today known as the Egypt Exploration Society, and the person who "created" Egypt for England. When she died in 1892, she left her collection and a library to University College, plus funds to maintain them. Petrie was, however, the first to hold the professorship in Egyptology, that now bears his name. University College was the first place where it was possible to study Egyptology in England.

With such a significant collection, a university is obligated to justify the presence of objects such as the ancient Egyptians left behind, and the university's right to house them in a university museum. Dr. Quirke stated forthrightly, that the objects are not the "property" or the museum, but rather there to be used for study and research, and as aids for teaching people and expanding knowledge.

Petrie dug nearly all his life, well into his 80s, and died at the age of 89 in 1948. He asked to take material out of Egypt and the Middle East, and distribute it to museums around the world. Of 80,000 objects he distributed to museums, 40,000 of the objects in the Petrie Museum's collection were collected and distributed by Petrie himself. The Petrie Museum has one of the great Amarna collections [when Amelia Edwards died, Petrie was excavating at Amarna].

People who view objects in a museum are often interested in the personalities of the collectors, the excavators, and those who originally owned and used the objects. It is the responsibility of the museum to explain such questions, and of the scholars in the museum to share what they know as well as try to close the gaps in our knowledge.

Dr. Quirke stated that a museum has to be a long-term institution, devoted to working out a means of providing access to material and know-edge/scholarship, so that people in future generations can see it as well. The Petrie Museum's goal is to build a museum facility in which all of the 80,000 object in the collection can be visible. There were many theories in the Victorian period as to why the pyramids existed. Petrie, however, had an open mind and through "looking at the ground to see what was really there", disproved most of them. He was always most interested in the Old Kingdom and the Pre-Dynastic period. Archaeo-technique and sequence dating were his greatest contributions to archaeology in Egypt. He was also a big collector. He would chase a dealer hanging about his excavations across a field for several miles, but collected himself, just the same. He was also a practical man. He was interested in the technology of how things were made. He learned about the technology and the society which employed it through the objects. He understood that the archeological context of the objects showed their history. Of particular interest to Petrie was the technology of glass and faience making. Glazing was a particular passion with him. 

University museum is a good place to experiment with how objects which have survived were constructed and used in life. Unfinished objects that were discarded are perfect tools for learning. Costume is about social identity and fragments of clothing provide tools for understanding the ancient society of Egypt.

The Petrie Museum has some examples of colossal sculpture in it's collection, which raises another question, "Should a small university museum have such extraordinary pieces". Dr. Quirke believes that if the museum uses them for learning, and shows all of the material it has in its collection, it is able to show the "soul" of Egypt, thus justifying their possession.

Dr. Quirke noted that race is one of the most difficult questions in modern society. Foreigners in ancient Egypt are always easily identified by their clothing, hair styles, etc., but the question of the race of the Egyptians themselves is a question still hotly debated in some circles. Pottery displays well, the nationality/identity of those living in Egypt. Dr. Quirke suggested that perhaps the best way to address the question is to put the material that addresses such questions on display for people to see. It is his belief that a university museum has greater freedom to do that than other museums. 

Petrie excavated at temple sites, palace and town sites, ruined sites, and in cemeteries. During his years in Egypt he did not only archaeology, but rescue archaeology. Even in his day, the monuments were disappearing and the artifacts were being robbed for fast sale on the antiquities market.Forty-Two mummy portraits in the Petrie Museum's collection came for endangered cemeteries.

The down-side of a university museum is funding. In the case of the Petrie, the friends of the museum have been its savior. The collection was rescued from the blitz during WWII by packing it and moving it to the same safe house used by the British Museum, much of the work done by volunteers. The original site where the collection was housed was demolished by the bombing. 

Currently the Petrie is working to raise the funds needed to build a new museum with a street frontage - so people can find the museum! The museum wants to ensure that it presents the ancient Egyptian's view of themselves, as well as the Egyptologist's view of ancient Egypt.

For those who have not yet visited the Petrie, every one of the 80,000 objects in the museum's collection are now viewable on the web, and by July 2003, the text providing context information about each object will also be up and available.

Nancy Corbin

For a membership packet either write

ARCE Northern California Chapter
P.O. Box 11352
Berkeley, CA 94712-2352

or email Membership Director, Betty Bussey

Contact Joan Knudsen by email at for further information on ARCE/NC events or by mail at P.O. Box 11352, Berkeley, CA., 94704-2352.

Go Back to Archives

Go Back to Homepage

Page Design and Content by Al Berens. All Rights Reserved
Copyright 2004 by Berens Graphics