Ancient Roman's Egyptian mummy mask joins display of museum treasures
Two Temple Place in London hosts exhibition of artefacts from seven regional museums
06.52 EST 10.40 EST
The golden mummy mask of Titus Flavius Demetrius, who chose to be buried not as a Roman citizen but as an Egyptian god, is still in gleamingly immaculate condition 1,900 years after it was made.
It shines in an exhibition of treasures that made their way from 19th-century excavation sites to regional museums all over England, now brought together in a Victorian house in London.
Margaret Serpico, the curator, said: "The quality of these collections is fantastic, rivalling anything in the national museums. It's always a joy heading out to see these collections and they never disappoint, there is always something wonderful and unexpected."
Her exhibition, with loans from seven regional museums, tells the story of how such spectacular objects, including beautiful painted mummy cases, textiles and stone carvings, jewellery and make-up jars, found their way to places such as Ipswich in Suffolk, Bolton in Greater Manchester, Bexhill-on-Sea in East Sussex – through the local GP who spent a season in Egypt measuring newly excavated skulls – and Kirklees, West Yorkshire.
Together, these objects have a magnificent showcase at Two Temple Place, an extraordinary house festooned with carved mahogany, tile, brass and stained glass. The house was originally built as the London estate office for the newspaper baron William Waldorf Astor and is now the headquarters of a charity, and opens to the public for a free exhibition once a year.
National, international and regional museums contributed to the excavations which Serpico, who has compiled the first catalogue covering the Egyptian collections in more than 200 UK museums, calls an early example of crowdfunding. Many objects in the collections were excavated by the pioneering Victorian archaeologist Flinders Petrie, backed by his patron, the novelist Amelia Edwards, an enthusiast who also founded the Egypt Exploration Society. .
There is a unique eyewitness account of one of the excavations in a superbly detailed watercolour by another intrepid Victorian traveller, Marianne Brocklehurst – whose collection helped to found the West Park museum in Macclesfield, Cheshire – showing a procession of mummies being carried from a spectacular find at Thebes to be shipped on the Nile to Cairo.
What museums of the time got depended on the finds that season, and on the size of their contributions, and they were not always happy with the results.
Guy Maynard, early 20th-century curator at Ipswich museum, was furious when he got none of the models he coveted of craft workers, including bread and beer makers, buried with the wealthy dead to ensure their meals in eternity. He complained directly to Petrie's formidable wife, Hilda, and as the loans from the museum to the exhibition prove, he somehow got his models.
The mask of Titus, excavated at Hawara in Egypt, has also come from Ipswich. Nothing is known of him except his name, neatly inscribed in Greek characters, and the fact that instead of a sarcophagus, the man who was probably a Roman official in Egypt chose to have his body mummified, protected by painted rows of winged jackal or hawk headed divinities, and his face covered with a gilded mask. Gold, the ancient Egyptians believed, was the colour of the skin of the gods, and the elaborate rituals of death gave a share of divinity and the promise of an eternal life of ease and pleasure.
"I hope people will come and see these things here and be astonished," Serpico said, "but I also hope it inspires people to seek the collections out in the local museums. They have such wonderful things, but they are losing funding, losing curators, many are in dire dire trouble. I hope this exhibition helps people to value and cherish them."
Beyond Beauty, Two Temple Place, open every day except Tuesdays, until 24 April 2016, free