3 - 9 October 2002
Issue No. 606
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From tent to technology

The Royal Ontario Museum recently celebrated the centenary of its commencement of work in Egypt and Nubia. Roberta Shaw* describes the museum's projects, its modest but important collection and its plans for the future


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Clockwise from top left: unusual gold figurine with Asian features; statue of Bokkenennife; visiting Torontonians in 1906; Amarna broad collar; Shabako scarab photographs from the Royal Ontario Museum
Last month, on 5 September, the Canadian Embassy hosted an event to celebrate 100 years of archaeology in Egypt by the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) at which the Canadian ambassador, Michel de Salaberry, opened a small photographic exhibition of the museum's projects in Egypt and Nubia since 1902. This was the year Charles Trick Currelly, the ROM's founder and its first director, started his work in Egypt and began to collect a substantial number of the Egyptian artefacts now at the museum. Compared with the collecting efforts of Europe and the United States of America, Canada was rather late in starting, but Currelly's ability to enlist the support of several prominent Toronto businessmen and University of Toronto administrators, along with his efforts in Egypt both as an archaeologist and collector, resulted in what is now the only comprehensive Egyptian collection in all Canada.

As with many such events, the Canadian arrival in Egypt stemmed from a coincidence. Soon after the turn of the 20th century Currelly, then a recent graduate of the theological department at Victoria College, University of Toronto, sailed for England to research material for his doctoral thesis on the socialists and anarchists of England and France. While searching in a London antiquaries shop to enlarge his small collection of Roman coins, he chanced upon a shawabti figure which he immediately purchased. He expressed his interest in things Egyptians to the keeper of coins at the British Museum, and was given a letter of introduction to the august British scholar William Flinders Petrie who had been working during the season at Abydos. Petrie, who recognised an energetic enthusiast when he saw one, hired Currelly to help set up the Egyptian Exploration Fund (EEF -- now the Egyptian Exploration Society, EES) exhibition for that year. Shortly thereafter, Currelly was offered a position by the fund and his London host, Prince Peter Kropotkin, foremost in the anarchist movement, told him it was the chance of a lifetime and advised him to forget all about his thesis. Thus the future of CT Currelly -- and the Royal Ontario Museum -- was struck. When, by chance, the chancellor of Victoria College unexpectedly turned up in London and met Currelly, even his interest was aroused. He suggested that Currelly should endeavour to collect material so that Toronto might one day have a museum.

This, of course, was music to the young man's ears. For the next eight years from 1902 to 1909, having put behind him all ideas of socialists and anarchists, he worked with Petrie at Abydos and had ample opportunity to collect the artefacts which today form a substantial part of the assemblage that graces the ROM's Egyptian galleries.

The first pieces Currelly brought into the (future) ROM collection included royal seals of the first and second dynasties, statue fragments, and an obelisk fragment of Ramses II. This good fortune fuelled Currelly's ambition to establish a museum, and he enlisted the support of several prominent businessmen and University of Toronto administrators. In early 1905 one such worthy remarked that Toronto had already lost its opportunity because Egyptian objects were now so dear that collecting was out of the question. But Currelly already knew from his experience in Egypt that he could acquire a respectable assemblage quite frugally, and he certainly lived up to his claim. Further seasons with the EEF brought in material from many sites including Serabit Al-Khadim in Sinai, Tel Al- Amarna and Luxor.

At Deir Al-Bahri Currelly was commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to make a full cast of Hatshepsut's Punt expedition. He taught his Egyptian workmen a technique he had learned from Petrie at Abydos using tin foil and beeswax, and managed to persuade a group of visiting Torontonians to fund a second copy for the future museum -- a museum which had by that time gained momentum in his mind, if not in reality. The second copy of the Punt Expedition was duly created and remains one of the ROM's most impressive displays, a popular teaching point for the museum's educational programmes.

In 1909 two events marked Currelly's future career: he was put on salary at the University of Toronto and given funds to travel and collect artefacts throughout Europe and Egypt, and he got married. His bride accompanied him on a wonderful shopping spree through France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Jerusalem, Damascus, Greece and, of course, his beloved Egypt. Among the notable objects he acquired from Egypt were an Amarna broad collar, a victory scarab of the 26th-Dynasty Pharaoh Shabako, and a curious gold figurine which appears to be Asian in origin.

For the most part, Currelly's Egyptian purchases rounded out a collection that already provided a remarkably complete picture of ancient Egyptian daily life -- an asset fully used by the Toronto school system since March of 1914, when the Royal Ontario Museum (then, of Archaeology) was finally opened with Currelly as its first director. The ROM was administrated by the University of Toronto until 1965 and is now an independent institution supported by the Province of Ontario.

The Egyptian collection, numbering some 30,000 artefacts, remains one of the most important and popular attributes of the ROM. Were it not for Currelly's fortuitous meeting with Petrie and his early acquisitions -- followed, in 1951, by Winifred Needler's policy as curator of the Egyptian collection to target high-quality art objects -- the ROM would be without this excellent asset. The collection is enhanced by two Old Kingdom reliefs, two New Kingdom reliefs, and an exquisite wooden statuette dating to the Middle Kingdom. The EES excavations at Buhen donated a 26th dynasty statue of a royal scribe.

On Needler's retirement in 1970, NB Millet became head of the Egyptian Department of the ROM, bringing with him numerous artefacts from his excavations at Gabal Al-Adda during the Nubia salvage operations during the decade following the decision to construct the High Dam at Aswan -- the scope of that collection covers the fifth to the eighth centuries AD. Since Millet's retirement, the Egyptology section has been headed by Krzysztof Grzymski, who has worked in both Egypt and Nubia since 1984.

In keeping with recent practice, fieldwork has now supplanted collecting as a primary goal for the Egyptological endeavour. In 1976 the Museum began its support for the Dakhleh Oasis Project in collaboration with the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities. In 1983 the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation (now the Supreme Council of Antiquities) graciously donated 280 items of archaeological interest. A representative collection of prehistoric material from the oasis is now on display at the Kharga Museum, developed jointly by Kharga and the ROM. Another contribution to Dakhleh from the ROM consists of a visitor's centre situated at the temple of Deir Al-Hagar at the extreme western end of Dakhleh. Grzymski's rescue excavation at Pelusium West in the Delta, co-directed with J Anderson and M Abdel-Maqsoud, was carried out in 1993 and 1994.

This year will see the start of a new construction plan for the ROM which will take the museum yet another step further from the first lodging of 100 years ago, Currelly's tent at Abydos. The designer of the extension to the present building, entitled "The Crystal", is Daniel Libeskind, who was inspired by the crystalline forms in the museum's mineralogy galleries. He has proposed a structure of organically interlocking prismatic forms which will house seven new galleries with dramatic views from both inside and out.

Libeskind has designed museums in Berlin and Manchester and is currently working on the "Spiral" extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The Egyptian galleries will, of course, remain a focal point of interest.

* Roberta Shaw is assistant curator of Egyptology at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. She is currently working with co- director Lyla Pinch-Brock on Theban Tomb #89, photographing and copying the wall paintings.

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