View of the "Evolution of Civilizations" mural in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, DC, (2007) part of the Library of Congress Series in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive (image courtesy of Library of Congress)

Given the growing awareness of the museum field’s foundation in White colonial power, museums are now taking action, rallying around the word “decolonize” to expand community partnerships and remove sculptures that celebrate White domination, while reanalyzing their own past and present collection practices. At least outwardly, we have seen a movement toward using more inclusive language, increasing accessibility, and diversifying programming, but our field has much more work ahead.

For museums to truly understand and acknowledge their colonial history, this self-examination must go beyond investigating how they built their collections into how they continue to interpret them. Looking at how and why museums interpret their ancient Egypt collections, we can see museums’ role in creating a Western-based narrative that has appropriated ancient Egyptian history, and fragmented Egyptian history, culture, and identity to create an incomplete and oversimplified narrative.

By the end of the 18th century, archaeology and museum collecting in Egypt was well established by European, British, and American funders, research organizations, and museums. The culmination of these excavations was Howard Carter’s 1922 rediscovery of the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun.

At the time of these excavations, from the mid-1800s to early 1900s, the narrative developed that Egypt was the birthplace of Western civilization. Where did this notion originate? Between 1890 and 1900, E.H. Blashfield painted a mural within the rotunda of the Library of Congress titled “The Evolution of Civilization.” This brightly colored mural illustrates the ostensible progression of civilization from ancient Egypt to America. Each step of evolution carries its own contribution: Egypt with the written record; Judea for religion; Greece for philosophy; Rome for administration; Islam for physics; and America for science. The figures representing each region were only White.

Shortly after the completion of Blashfield’s mural, James Henry Breasted, archaeologist, historian, and a founder of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, published several textbooks that defined the “great White race.” In his books Ancient Times, a History of the Early World (1916) and The Conquest of Civilization (1926), Breasted outlined the classification “White” that encompassed southwestern Asia and North Africa, along with Europe.

A view of map of the northwest quadrant with superimposed racial categories by James Henry Breasted, from his revised second edition of the book Ancient Times, a History of the Early World (1916), on page 13 (photo scan by the author)

Claiming Egypt as a White race reinforces Blashfield’s assertion that Egyptian civilization should be considered part of the creation of Western civilization. Breasted asserts, “In the Orient, during the thousand years from 4000 to 3000 BC … slowly built up a high civilization, forming the beginning of the Historic Epoch. Civilization thus began in the Orient … ” If the Orient, according to Breasted, gave rise to Western civilization, where did the Orient originate? In the first sentence of the second chapter of The Conquest of Civilization Breasted states, “We are to begin our study of the early Orient in Egypt.”

By the 1920s, the evolutionary progressions developed by Blashfied’s mural and the writings of James Henry Breasted, among others, led this Western civilization canon to become the standard college curriculum taught throughout the United States.

In conjunction, museums presented the narrative of this now-established canon of development: from Egypt, through to Greece, Rome, and “the West.” This narrative remains in many encyclopedic museums that often blatantly place their ancient Egyptian collections within European art collections. At the San Francisco’s Legion of Honor, for example, visitors can enjoy elaborate Roman vases and detailed glasswork right alongside ancient Egyptian friezes, small sculptures, and a standing mummy while waiting in line to enter the café. Likewise, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exquisite ancient Egyptian collection is just down the hall from their equally exquisite Greek and Roman collections.  But is this sequence limited to museums? When we teach art history or sixth-grade ancient civilizations, do these courses not also often follow a similar approach?

A view of the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2014) (photo by Phil Roeder courtesy Flickr)

This sequential and simplistic narrative is inherently problematic. Aside from placing the development of Western culture or colonization at the center of the story, it has also splintered Egypt’s ancient history from its contemporary legacy and people. The disconnect between ancient and contemporary culture is evident at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Egyptian history is separated between ancient Egyptian and Islamic collections placed on entirely different floors.

This divorce of ancient Egypt from its contemporary legacy is so complete that modern Egypt seems unlikely as the source of its ancient history. In fact, we have seen few if any changes since the 19th century in museums’ interpretation and presentation of ancient Egyptian collections. For example, during the 2011 revolution to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak, museums abroad generally remained silent and their collection galleries remained static, giving an impression of disconnect from present events. Meanwhile, organizations such as the American Research Center in Egypt have catered programming to broaden the narrative and history of ancient Egypt to its African roots, such as their 2021 panel series, “Africa Interconnected: Ancient Egypt & Nubia.”

Installation view of The Future of the Past: Mummies and Medicine at the Legion of Honor museum (photograph by Randy Dodson, courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

What might a solution look like? San Francisco’s Legion of Honor held a modest exhibition titled The Future of the Past: Mummies and Medicine from May 2016 through April 2019. While the exhibition continued a singular focus on ancient Egyptian culture and mummification, the walls surrounding the displays revealed a possible connection to contemporary art forms and interpretation. The Legion of Honor invited American-born street artist RETNA to cover the walls in a script inspired by Egyptian, Coptic, Hebrew, and Arabic. This writing, inspired by graffiti art, seems to blend ancient and contemporary senses together, which in turn creates a bridge between past and present. Although RETNA is not Egyptian, what could such a partnership between museum and artist or between museum and living cultures offer audiences and the legacy of ancient history?

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Jennifer Miller

Jennifer Miller has been in the museum field since 2007 with a background in Anthropology and Egyptology. She is currently an educator at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

One reply on “Why We Must Challenge the Typical Museum Narrative Regarding Ancient Egypt”

  1. The historical alignment of ancient Egypt along with ancient European powers is something I’ve always wondered about even as a 4th grade child in school. Thank goodness for Dr. Henry Louis Gates’ research and your wonderful essay! Much appreciated

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