Bloor West Egyptologist retires after 25 years at the ROM
Gayle Gibson to share stories of Egyptian queen Hatshepsut at public talk on May 5
Bloor West Villager
Famed Egyptologist Gayle Gibson retired from the ROM just last month after 25 years bringing ancient Egypt alive for tens of thousands of school children and lifelong learners alike.
The long-time Bloor West resident will be missed among expert staff at the downtown museum.
“Gayle’s ability to breathe life into ancient history has set her apart as an Egyptologist and an educator and made her an invaluable resource to the ROM,” said Dr. Krystof Grzymski, senior curator of Egyptology at the Royal Ontario Museum. “She has had a tremendous impact as a teacher here and will not easily be replaced.”
With a new tour to Egypt in the works for January 2016, Gibson is gearing up for her first post-retirement talk in May – women’s month – celebrating the life of one of Egypt’s greatest queens: Hatshepsut.
On Tuesday, May 5 at 6:30 p.m. Gibson will be joined by another Egyptology expert Dr. MaryAnn Pouls Wegner of the University of Toronto, who has recently made some profound archaeological discoveries about Hatsheput in Middle Egypt. ‘Discovering Hatshepsut’ is being presented at the Alliance Francaise at 24 Spadina Rd.
Gibson has become an internationally renowned mummy and coffin expert, appearing in numerous history documentaries over the years, including Museum Secrets, Nova: The Mummy Who Would be King, and last year’s BBC One program: Tutankhamen, the Truth Uncovered. Her name also made the news this past fall when she discovered the name of a female mummy – ‘Nefer-Mut’ (a.k.a “Justine”) – who had lain unidentified in the ROM museum vaults for decades. She also identified that peculiar Egyptian Mummy in the old Niagara Museum back in the 1990s as none other than Pharaoh Ramses I, and helped to get him back to Egypt.
“I’m interested in the mummy not as a dead thing but as a person who once lived,” Gibson said. “Someone who makes us wonder: what was it like to be him or her, way back then? What was it like to be alive as an Ancient Egyptian?”
Breathing life into the ancient Egyptians is what Gibson does best. A consummate storyteller, she has not only led countless tours of the ROM’s collections to school groups but has also taught some of the ROM’s best-attended courses on hieroglyphics and ancient Egyptian history.
She has also played a key role as media expert and spokesperson on all things Egyptology.
Born in Toronto’s east-end 67 years ago, she continues her lifelong love affair with Egypt – a subject, she confesses, gripped her at a very young age:
“I used to go down to the ROM every weekend and walk around until my feet were bleeding,” she said. “I would sit on the floor and copy all the hieroglyphs off the wall. I remember one really thrilling day as a young teenager when I found the name ‘Metjetji’ and realized I could actually read a little bit.”
She was deterred from her dream profession by a guidance counsellor who dismissed it as ‘stupid’ and not something that could ever make her a living. So instead, she went on to become a drama and high school teacher for the Chatham-Kent, York, North York and Toronto boards of education.
It was only after her son was born that she rediscovered her true calling and returned to U of T to finally attain an MA in Egyptology as a mature student.
“I thought if I was good, the museum just might let me dust the coffins or something.”
But that’s all history now. After 25 years, she is immensely proud of the institution and its many contributions to historical preservation, study and education.
“The ROM was one of the first museums in the world to take the study of mummies very seriously,” she said. “The mummy of Djedmaatesankh was one of the first to get a proper modern CT scan – and we are now continuing that work with other mummies who are more obscure but I think deserve the attention just as much.”
Finding Ramses I at Niagara Falls
Gibson also lights up at the mention of another museum close to her heart:
“I used to go to Niagara every year to see this astonishing old museum. It had an amazing collection with rare fossils, Samurai armour and these rare animals and birds preserved more than 150 years ago, many of which are now extinct. There was also a mummy there that I often wondered about.”
“He looked like a member of Ramses the Great’s family, and the more I studied him, the more I thought he might really be a royal person. I began to call him ‘Ramses for luck’.”
When the Niagara museum was sold in the late 1990s, Gibson was consultant to the buyer William Jamieson and helped sell the coffins and mummies to the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory at Atlanta. It was in Atlanta that the positive identification of the mummy as Ramses the I was made, and the great Pharaoh was triumphantly returned home to Luxor.
2016 Egypt Tour will include Ramses – and Middle Egypt
Gibson will be stopping by to pay her respects to Ramses during her January 2016 tour to Egypt. With more than 20 trips to the Egypt under her belt, she is certain to bring an insider’s view of all the pyramids and temples, along with the rarely visited sites of Middle Egypt.
“Ancient history helps open up the world to us,” she said. “These ancient people managed quite well without iPhones and computers, writing wonderful poetry and building nifty things like pyramids... So I think they remind us that the human race is bigger and more interesting than our little lives here in Ontario.”
For more details on Gayle Gibson’s “Discovering Hatshepsut” talk on Tuesday, May 5 at The Alliance Francaise or her 2016 Egypt tour, visit ancientegyptalive.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org