Curating as an ex-curator

At the start of my career, in fact as soon as I started graduate school, I wanted nothing more than to work in a museum. The direct contact with antiquities, the chance to create displays for the public, the swanky receptions that I was sure accompanied exhibition openings: perfect. And I did wind up working in many museums, as a volunteer, as a paid student intern, on short-term contracts, and finally, a permanent contract. From my first behind-the-scenes experience at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in 1995, to the day I left my post as curator of the Manchester Museum Egyptian collection, with more relief than regret, I spent more than 11 years working in museums. In all that time, though, I never curated a temporary exhibition. I worked on major gallery overhauls, and I made a few minor tweaks here and there to individual displays. But coming up with a single idea to develop as a temporary show, with the aim of drawing in visitors just for that – nope, never had the chance and never learned the specific skills that it requires. Most of my museum work involved caring for large collections, which meant dealing with day-to-day inquiries, improving storage and cataloguing, and processing loans to other museums that were organizing exhibitions.

Applying for a Mid-Career Fellowship from the British Academy back in 2013 gave me the chance to revisit my curatorial past. To fulfill the public dissemination aspect of the fellowship – that is, how was I going to share my research beyond academia? – I came up with the idea of creating a relatively low-cost, high-quality, photography-based exhibition that could travel to small venues, or to small spaces within larger venues. Because my research is based on the premise that photography was a working tool in archaeology, and was not at all considered some kind of art form, I wanted to get away from the conventional manner of displaying photographs in frames on gallery walls, as I’ve discussed. I also wanted to serve local and regional museums near me – something which seemed a natural fit given that photographer Harry Burton grew up in Stamford, Lincolnshire, while lead excavator Howard Carter grew up in Swaffham, Norfolk.


When my fellowship application was successful for 2015, I had to deliver. I came up with a proposal and sent it to several museums, including The Collection in Lincoln, which had impressed me when I’d visited in 2014 while in this delightful cathedral city for a Museums and Galleries History Group conference. It’s in a wonderful modern building  halfway up Steep Hill, next to its older museum sister, the Usher Gallery. Archaeology curator and collections manager Antony Lee invited me up for a meeting, showed me their Courtyard Gallery, and convinced his colleagues to schedule the show for a nice, long run. It opened last Friday, November 10th, and will be on show until January 28th in the new year.

With the luxury of time that research leave – and only research leave – gives to us academics, I sat down with a plan of the gallery, some squared paper, a pencil, a straight edge, and a head full of ideas from my research, which was well underway by then. Having seen the space, and knowing the Tutankhamun photographic archive as well as I do, I could visualize a series of same-sized panels placed rhythmically around the walls. I hoped the visual effect would lead visitors from one to the other, letting them focus on the photographs while taking in as much or as little of the supporting text as they wished. I selected and grouped the photographs in a meaningful order. I even had four working themes, one for each wall – but in the end, I think visitors go where they want to go. An exhibition has to have enough structure to get an idea across, but enough flexibility so that visitors don’t need to follow a set order or read every label (who does?) in order to get the curator’s idea. Or, indeed, come away with their own idea instead.


This is a slightly dark shot of the first and brightest wall, since it benefits from a large window into The Collection’s courtyard. The introductory panel is a perfect square twice as wide (120cm) as the rest of the panels. The 400-word text is probably twice as long as it should be, but I couldn’t whittle it down more than that and say what I thought was important for people to know. I hope the bold paragraph headings help people who do want to read some of it pick and choose which bits are most interesting to them.

IMG_9187Around the other three sides of the gallery, as you see above, that sense of rhythmic repetition emerges, which I hope we can recreate when the exhibition moves to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge in June. On the left wall in this image, we had to hang the panels closer together than I’d planned, since I’d forgotten about the two small windows. These can be covered up, but the Lincoln curators and I thought they made a nice feature, so we did a little bit of bunching up instead.

The back wall, with four panels, is one where I hope visitors will spend some time. It features the Egyptians whose work was absolutely crucial to the excavation, including some of the politicians who helped make it happen and who (as politicians do) used it for their own image-making as well. These four panels also introduce an idea that seems ever more important to get across these days, by pointing out the endemic racial prejudice that shaped relationships between Western archaeologists and the Egyptians they worked alongside every day. This influenced how archaeology characterized race in antiquity, studied human remains, and created misleading models of cultural ‘progress’, where white Europeans always came out on top. On a lighter note, I made an evening excursion to Paperchase in Lincoln to buy a comments book, some pens, and some light blue washi tape to coordinate with the panels. Never say that I lack an eye for detail.


Two beautiful, identical display cases positioned in the centre of the room gave me a chance to get back on more familiar territory: laying out objects and positioning labels, instead of hanging things on walls. One case shows some newspapers and magazines contemporary with the 1920s dig, while this one expands that to look at how Harry Burton’s photographs, and other photographs of the tomb, circulated for decades afterwards. Many of the items on display are my own – things that I’ve acquired in the course of my research. Others have been lent by friends and colleagues. To offer something a little more three-dimensional, I’ve rested the labels on top of early 20th-century dark slides – the holders, here made of mahogany (I think), that protected glass  negatives from light until they were safely in the camera body. By releasing a brass latch, the photographer could lift up the sliding cover and expose the negative, then shut it back down to end the exposure. I hope Burton had much lighter, slimmer examples than these with him in Egypt, but I also hope these lend an evocative touch to the show.

Many years after I first thought of becoming a museum curator, and several years after I gave up museum curating for good, how does it feel finally to have curated a temporary exhibition? Pretty good, in fact. I’m relieved that everything arrived safely and fit the space (apart from the little windows!), and I’ve surprised myself by how good it looks in the gallery, from the scale of the panels on the walls to the way the colour (warm blue!) tones with the wooden ceiling feature and stone flooring. It was a real pleasure and a welcome change of pace to work together with Antony and his colleague Dawn Heywood, curator of art, getting everything installed. Museum work is physical work, and at small venues, there often are no technicians available to help. The three of us did the entire installation. Antony was a dab hand brad-awling where the screws should go, and I followed behind, screwing the panel battens to the wall. Dawn even took on some white wall paint touch-ups while bravely wearing black. It reminded me of one thing that I do miss about museum work: the camaraderie.

What will the public make of it, that’s the question now. I’ll keep you posted – and if you’ve visited the show, please feel free to use the contact page on this website to get in touch. Meanwhile, it’s back to my day job: teaching, emails, marking, emails, advising, emails, sitting in meetings, emails, and repeat. Not a brad awl in sight, and more’s the pity.

Displaying photography

It’s done: the last proof has been checked, the ‘send’ button has been pressed, and the panels for the exhibition ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’ have gone to press at the superb Echo House production house. I’ve had many moments of worrying about what visitors will think when the show opens at The Collection in Lincoln in November – but there’s no turning back now.

The idea for this exhibition grew out of a British Academy research fellowship that I held in 2015 – so like most exhibitions, it’s been a long time coming, but with a lot of the work inevitably done in a flurry towards the end. But the central idea hasn’t changed, both in terms of what I wanted to explore in the exhibition, and the physical form I wanted it to take. Let me explain a bit about both, since one informs the other.

Most exhibitions of photography display photographic prints mounted in frames and fixed to the walls of a gallery. The prints might themselves be ‘vintage’, that is, printed at or near the time the photographs were taken, and perhaps even made by the credited photographer. The idea of an original photographic print, that is, something developed and printed by a named photographer – Julia Margaret Cameron, or Henri Cartier-Bresson, to take two famous names – owes a lot to a self-conscious positioning of photography as a unique artistic expression. Mounting photographs in frames also encourages us to see them as works of art, much like we would view a painting, engraving, or drawing.

But more often, photography has been a tool, not an art form. From the time of its discovery in the 1830s, using photographic technology as a recording device was the dominant idea – and recording monuments, objects, people, and natural phenomena quickly became the main use of the camera. Added to that, negative-based photographic processes allowed almost endless reproductions of the image, either from the original negative or by re-photographing existing prints, in the days before digital scanning. Negatives were also used to make magic lantern slides to project for entertainment or at public lectures, like the sold-out lectures that Howard Carter gave about his work at the tomb of Tutankhamun.

To my mind, displaying the Tutankhamun photographs in frames and hanging them on a gallery wall would invite viewers to see them only for their aesthetic value – that is, as works of art. Many of the photographs have an aesthetic value, of course. But why were certain photographs taken to look especially appealing or evocative, and what about the aesthetic of ‘objective knowledge’ that many of the photographs adopt instead? Those are the kinds of questions that interest me and inform my research.

Sample panel for blog

Rather than making new prints to display in conventional gallery frames, I came up with the idea of printing digital scans from Harry Burton’s negatives on large panels. These panels also incorporate a short text, a title, and credit information, against a complementary background. Apart from the introductory panel (which you get a glimpse of, in draft form, above), each panel is the same size, and they will hang on the gallery walls at the same height, about equal distance apart. What I hoped was that this format would be flexible, allowing the exhibition to be made smaller – or larger, if we add to it – for different venues, and also allowing the panels to be reused several times, making this a cost-effective way to offer a loan exhibition to smaller museums or other venues.

The panels are made of a material called Dibond, which consists of two thin metal sheets sandwiching a core material for support. It’s often used for museum signage. Instead, for ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’, the signs become the show, asking viewers to experience photography not (or not only) on the visual level, but as a set of practices in the field and in the press, and between people, places, and objects. Photos and photography made archaeology meaningful, yes – but not for the reasons we often assume.

Fifty shades of blue

I haven’t written here recently because I’ve been so busy preparing teaching for the new semester at the University of East Anglia – and debating shades of blue and other design details for the ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’ exhibition, which opens November 10th at The Collection in the beautiful cathedral city of Lincoln, Lincolnshire.

IMG_8937If you know anything about graphic design, you’re probably familiar with Pantone – the American company whose colour (or should that be ‘color’?) charts are used as a standard in many industries, especially printing. That’s one of the charts you see in the photograph above – spread out on the desk in my office with some A3 draft printouts of the large panels that comprise the exhibition. Pantone charts are like the paint charts you pick up when you’re decorating your house, but with a gazillion more options. Fun!

We’ve been trying to find the right shade of blue to complement the new digital scans that The Griffith Institute at Oxford University have made for the exhibition, directly from Harry Burton’s glass negatives. (‘We’ means me, a couple of trusted friends and colleagues, and designer Paul Kuzemczak of GK3 design here in Norwich.) Digital scanning is an amazing tool, and one that many photographic archives use now to make both photographic positives and negatives available – ‘flipping’ the negatives so that they look like printed positives.

But: digitizing monochrome, silver-gelatine negatives like Burton’s tends to make the flipped image look a little ‘cold’, no matter how skilled the person doing the scanning. Digital versions emphasize the deep blacks and bright whites on the negative, which are then reversed on the computer to produce the positive – the images you see above. When printing his negatives to paper back in the 1920s, a photographer like Harry Burton would have achieved softer tones of grey instead, even veering into the sepia browns that we often associate with old photographs. This depended on what kind of paper was used (in one of his letters to Metropolitan Museum of Art colleagues, Burton mentioned using bromide paper) and on adjustments the photographer could make during the printing process in the darkroom. ‘Dodging’ is the term for blocking some of the light as you expose a print, which has the effect of brightening up a shadowy area on the print and making more detail visible there. ‘Burning’ is the opposite, blocking everything else on a print while you expose a too-light area for longer and thus make it appear darker on the finished photograph. Burton, by instinct and experience, would have used both.

Digital scans from negatives create a new image, and in some ways, a different one. It’s still a photograph, but it won’t be identical to any photograph Burton printed from the same negative in the 1920s, or to prints that other photographers have created in the past century using Burton’s negatives. In fact, it’s sometimes difficult to know which prints in the Tutankhamun archives were made by Burton and which were made later – changes in the paper may be the only clue. This is normal in photographic collections, and too often overlooked by people who aren’t used to working with photographs. With few exceptions, like the daguerreotype, photography isn’t a technology of the unique. It’s a technology of reproduction and multiplication – that’s what made it so powerful a tool and so popular a medium.

For the exhibition panels, the question has been how to choose a colour that warms up the cold tones of the digital scans without overwhelming the images and texts – or, for that matter, the visitors. We pretty quickly settled on a soft blue as a good visual complement for the photographs and for the white-walled venues we have in Lincoln and at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, where the show moves for summer 2018. Shades of white and grey were too, well, grey; any kind of tan or brown or red tinge (think ‘desert’) looked flat and dead with the photographs; and other colours – like greens or golds or pinky-purples – were too ‘out there’ and competed with the photographs.

So, blue it had to be – but with a hint of warmth, even though blue is usually considered a ‘cold’ colour. I think we’re nearly there. One more sample should arrive this week from our fantastic printers, Echo House, whittling it down to our last two choices. Will it be P 120-1 U or P 120-9 U, to use the Pantone chart codes? Edge of your seat stuff, obviously. Just as well they don’t have names like ‘Luxor blue’ or ‘Pharaoh’s breath’. As someone with a kitchen wall painted in Vert de Terre, I don’t think I could handle the suspense.


Tutankhamun goes to the fair

A rollercoaster, a water chute, a dance hall, and a Chinese restaurant: what did any of these have to do with the tomb of Tutankhamun? They were all part of the British Empire Exhibition held at Wembley in 1924 and 1925 – where a reconstruction of the tomb’s Antechamber and its treasures (as they were invariably known) could be found at the far side of the 40-acre amusement area.

Elsewhere at the Exhibition, a ‘Palace of Beauty’ sponsored by Pears, the soap manufacturer, featured lovely young women posing as famous ‘beauties’ of the past (Helen of Troy, Nell Gwynne), though I strongly suspect the ‘Palace of Engineering’ did not give visitors a chance to ogle handsome young men playing Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Instead, each part of the British Empire contributed some kind of display, somewhere. Canada, for instance, was particularly proud of its railways.

These combinations of education and entertainment, government and commerce, and British-ness with the rest-of-the-world, may seem a little strange today – but they are the precursors of our own ‘leisure industries’. We probably take for granted shopping malls like the Trafford Centre in Manchester, with its Abu Simbel-inspired food court, or the way zoos and attractions like the Eden Centre use ‘primitive’ or ‘tribal’ objects and architecture to stage their displays of animals or plants from Africa, Asia, or South America.

But I would argue that that’s the same sort of thing the inclusion of Tutankhamun’s tomb was doing in the British Empire Exhibition almost a century ago. It was part of the day-to-day, taken-for-granted inclusion of ‘the Other’ into what it meant to be British. Most of the rest-of-the-world that you could visit at the Empire Exhibition was British, remember. Hong Kong, evoked by that Chinese restaurant; Canada with its railways; or Bermuda, represented by a reconstruction of Irish poet Tom Moore’s house (‘Walsingham’, he’d called it, after the medieval pilgrimage site in my home county of Norfolk).

In other words, those ‘others’ weren’t ‘other’. They weren’t foreign, not entirely. They were British, too, woven tightly into the fabric and identity of British society despite the revisionist rhetoric of nationalist politics and the right-wing press today. Being a subject of the British Empire had many legal and practical implications, after all, which is why so many troops from what are now India, Pakistan, and other colonies fought and died in both world wars.

At the time of the British Empire Exhibition, Egypt itself wasn’t any longer part of the British Empire – and its relationship to the Empire had always been ambiguous, since until the outbreak of World War 1, it was already part of the Ottoman Empire. Egypt had been granted independence from Britain in 1922, although British administrators still kept a close eye on its internal affairs and still controlled its foreign affairs and the all-important Suez Canal. Rather than an official representation of modern Egypt, then, the reproduction of Tutankhamun’s tomb was a piece of pure entertainment, like the ‘Palace of Beauty’ and the amusement park rides. It proved to be one of the most popular attractions, seen by many of the 27 million visitors the Exhibition attracted over almost two years in west London. Among those visitors were the tomb’s photographer Harry Burton and his wife Minnie, who mentioned their excursion in her diary (see the entry for May 27) – though she doesn’t mention visiting the tomb reproduction. They’d both seen the original in person, practically from the start.

The replicas, many of which are now in the collection of Hull Museums, were made by the firm of architectural sculptor William Aumonier – part of a family of artists active in London in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of them – the reproduction of the hippo-headed funerary couch, representing the protective goddess Taweret – made a spectacular addition to the Ashmolean Museum’s Discovering Tutankhamun exhibition in 2014.

ILN Wembley

Howard Carter wasn’t so convinced. He tried to stop the tomb reproduction from going ahead, by claiming the Aumonier’s work infringed his contract with the London Times, granting the newspaper exclusive rights to Harry Burton’s photographs. But Carter lost his legal complaint. The Wembley reproduction was based on photographs, drawings, and descriptions provided by Egyptologist Arthur Weigall, who had covered the tomb’s discovery for the Daily Mail. Weigall had warned Carter, in a collegial spirit, that Carter was making a mistake by signing the Times contract and behaving arrogantly towards the Egyptian government and press. Carter paid no attention.

As it turned out – and as the Illustrated London News headline above confirms – the Wembley reproduction of the tomb opened just as Carter declared a ‘strike’ in the spring of 1924, when his long-simmering tensions with the Egyptian government and its Antiquities Service reached boiling point. That makes it all the more interesting to think about issues of ownership, both real and abstract. One of the tensions between Carter and the Egyptian antiquities authorities concerned the very copyright in press coverage and photographs that Carter was trying to protect in English courts – but another was the question of whether the Egyptian government would give Carter and the Carnarvon family any of the objects from the tomb under the ‘division’ system that Western archaeologists had come to expect. The question of cultural ‘ownership’ – were do we imagine a find like Tutankhamun ‘belongs’ – adds yet another layer.

That’s why, when I come across old news coverage of the Wembley tomb reproduction like the snippets I’ve included here, I can’t help but wonder about the cultural values and historical assumptions that were at its heart – and whether they still inform Britain’s ideas about its former colonies and protectorates today. Tutankhamun as a fairground attraction? He still makes a popular subject for all kinds of kitsch commercial products and speculative TV documentaries, which seem similar to me. King Tut may be the quintessential symbol of ancient Egypt – but he’s still experienced like the displays in the British Empire Exhibition. A little exotic, maybe, but ‘our’ exotic. Step right up.

Tutankhamun’s head

Mary Beard is the best boss I’ve ever had. She was head of the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge when I worked there for a year. She welcomed me when I arrived, told people to read my then-new book (the first one, The Beautiful Burial in Roman Egypt), and let me get on with my job in the Museum of Classical Archaeology. Heaven.

So like any right-thinking person, I’ve been appalled by the vitriolic attacks made on her via Twitter the past week or two, after she expressed support for the way a BBC educational cartoon – yes, for children – showed a high-ranking Roman family in Britain that included a dark-skinned father and a literate mother. (Read about it in her own words here, plus lots of press coverage and some top-notch science journalism out there in response.) Both a Roman officer from Africa and a Roman woman who could read and write are unusual, but they are not unattested. Besides which, one aim was to show children today that there was diversity in the ancient world. To paint back in some of the people who have been painted out for a long time. Similar things have been done with educational material in the UK and US (maybe elsewhere, too) to ensure that ancient Egypt isn’t white-washed.

Race is a topic that invites powerful reactions, precisely because of the impact it has had and still has in our society. Throw ancient Egypt into the mix, and those reactions multiply. For one thing, Egypt is a place at the root of Judaeo-Christian origin myths: Joseph and his coat of many colours, Moses leading the Hebrews to the promised land. For another, it’s a place with undeniably awe-inspiring ancient remains: it’s hard to top the pyramids, the Sphinx, the colossi of Memnon, all lauded by Greek and Roman writers, and therefore familiar to educated Europeans for centuries now. Lay claim to your ancestors having built those, and you lay claim to ‘civilization’ itself.*

And for a third, Egypt is a place of in-betweenness, or so it seemed from Europe’s vantage point: in between Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean, to use modern Western conceptions of those spaces. That makes ancient Egypt ‘unstable’, in slightly fancy academic talk. The unstable things are what everyone’s trying to prop up or topple down, over and over again, a bit like poking a bruise.

If we go back to the 18th century, we can see how race was invented to characterize physical differences between humans, and then developed in a way that supported crippling inequalities based on those perceived differences. One of the least pleasant bits of research I’ve ever done was reading a book called Types of Mankind, written by self-professed Egyptologist George Gliddon and a slave-owning doctor named Josiah Nott. It’s vile in its long-winded justification of racism, but that didn’t stop it going into eight printings in 1850s America. Nor can we dismiss people like Gliddon and Nott as cranks. Race science wasn’t a pseudo-science – a word that might seem to create some safe distance between ‘us’ in the 21st century and earlier scholars who accepted, furthered, and used its core principles. It was the real deal, and every archaeologist and anthropologist trained in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had been trained to understand the ancient past through some version of racial categorization.**

So, inevitably, to Tutankhamun. By the time the mummy was unwrapped – or rather, cut through, scraped away, and taken to pieces – the principles of racial classification were always, always applied to ancient Egyptian human remains. That meant getting a medical doctor to take a series of measurements of the skull and of major bones, too, if the body was dissected or poorly preserved within the wrappings, as Tutankhamun’s was. At the unwrapping of Tutankhamun’s mummy in November 1925, there were two medical doctors on hand to study it, Douglas Derry, professor of anatomy at the Cairo Medical School, and Saleh Bey Hamdi, its former head. Only Derry was credited on the published anatomical report, which duly reported all the skeletal measurements.^

Only two photographs of the head of Tutankhamun’s mummy were published at the time – both with the head cradled in a white cloth, which concealed the fact that it had been detached from the body at the bottom of the neck in order to remove the gold mummy mask. The cloth also conceals all the tools and detritus on the work surface, which is clear on the photographic negatives. They were printed and published cropped to the head itself with the cloth around it, as you see here:

From ILN
Left profile of the mummified head of Tutankhamun, photograph by Harry Burton (neg. TAA 553), as published in The Illustrated London News, 1926.

(Personal disclaimer here: I really, really hate publishing photographs of mummies, especially unwrapped mummies, mummified body parts, and children’s mummies. I’ve done it here to make a larger point about the visualization of race – and I know these images are already circulating out there. Still, uneasy about it.)

Anyway, of the two photographs that Howard Carter released to the press and used in his own book on Tutankhamun (volume 2), there were two views, one to the front and one to show the left profile, as you see above. But photographer Harry Burton took several more photographs of the head after a little more work had been done on it – and after it had been mounted upright on a wooden plank, with what looks the handle of a paintbrush used to prop up the neck. None of these photographs were published in Carter’s (or Burton’s) lifetimes, and I don’t think they were meant to be. But clearly, from their perspective, having photographs of the head was crucial. It’s also telling that while some of the photographs show the head at near-profile or three-quarter angles, most stick to the established norms of racial ‘type’ photography: front, back, left profile, right profile.

Version 2
Print, possibly from 1925, of a photograph by Harry Burton, from neg. TAA 553, (c) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Above, an example of one of the near-profile or three-quarter angle views. As far as I can tell, this was first published, at a size even smaller than the image here, in Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt’s English-language book Tutankhamun (George Rainbird 1963) – with the paintbrush handle carefully erased. (Here, you just get my iPhone reflection.)

Version 2
Print of a photograph by Harry Burton, from neg. TAA 1244, (c) The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The paintbrush handle has been masked out with tape.

It wasn’t until 1972 that most or all of the photographs of the mummy, including its head, were published in a scholarly study by F. Filce Leek, part of the Griffith Institute’s Tutankhamun’s Tomb monograph series. That included the left profile above, where masking tape was applied to the negative before printing – again, to remove the paintbrush handle.

These different stagings of the head of Tutankhamun’s mummy matter, likewise the way the photographs did or didn’t circulate, or what adaptations were deemed necessary to make them presentable for publication. Clearly, that paintbrush handle was deemed inappropriate in some way in the 1960s – just as in the 1920s and 1930s, when Carter was still writing about the tomb, he must have deemed it inappropriate to show that second set of photographs at all.

And what do they show us, these photographs? The face of Tutankhamun? The race of Tutankhamun? Or something else? Carter didn’t explicitly discuss race when he described the mummy’s appearance: he didn’t have to, because there was already a code in language to distinguish more ‘Caucasian’ bodies from more ‘Negroid’ ones (to use the most common terms deployed in late 19th-/early 20th-century archaeology). ‘The face is refined and cultured’, so the Illustrated London News reported in its 3 July 1926 edition, almost certainly closely paraphrasing or directly quoting Carter. Placed underneath the cloth-wrapped left profile (the first photo I showed above), text and picture together made it clear enough to the paper’s middle-class readers that Tutankhamun was an ancient Egyptian of more Arab, Turkish, or even European appearance than sub-saharan African. The mummy’s sunken cheekbones seem high and sharp, and the crushed nose in profile looks high-bridged and narrow.

What really interests me here, though, is what we don’t see, because we still take such photographs, and drawings, and CT-scans, and 3D reconstructions, for granted: images like these have race science at their very heart, going right back to the 18th century.^^ So when I see a photograph like this – and there are thousands of them in the annals of archaeology – I don’t see Tutankhamun, and I certainly don’t see anything refined or cultured about mummified heads. I see the extent to which the doing of race had worked its way into pretty much every corner of archaeology, especially in the archaeology of colonized and contentious lands like Egypt. Why take these photographs? I assume that in 1925, it was inconceivable not to, just as it was inconceivable not to unwrap the mummy, not to take anatomical measurements, and not to detach the head from the body and pry it out of the mask.

Pictures matter, photographs matter, and the way we use photographs and talk about photographs, those matter too. In the book I’ll be publishing next year on the photographic archive of Tutankhamun’s tomb, I go into more detail about this particular set of photographs of the mummified head. But given the controversy over race, skin colour, and DNA in Roman Britain that flared up recently, I thought I’d get back into blog writing with this example.

In our image-saturated age, we need to be even more careful about how we use historic images like these photographs. Don’t look at what they show in the picture. Look instead for what they show about the mindsets and motivations behind the taking of the picture. The legacies of race science are still with us – and if, as archaeologists, historians, or Egyptologists, we want a wider public to understand those legacies, we need much more vocal and more critical work on the history of Egyptology and the visualization of the ancient dead.


* I talk a bit about the problem with the word ‘civilization’ in a book called (yes, the irony) Egypt: Lost Civilizations (Reaktion 2017). Scott Trafton does a fantastic job talking about how African-Americans perceived ancient Egypt in the 19th century – sometimes as their own place of origin, to take pride in a chapter of African history, but sometimes as a place of slavery, to be rejected in the struggle against slavery. His book is called Egypt Land, and I learned a lot from it. Great cover, too.

** For how race infused the study of archaeology, see Debbie Challis’s excellent The Archaeology of Race (Bloomsbury 2015), and for its impact on the study of ancient Mesopotamia, I can’t recommend Jean Evans, The Lives of Sumerian Sculpture (Cambridge UP 2012) highly enough.

^ On this exclusion, see Donald Malcolm Reid, Contesting Antiquity in Egypt (American University in Cairo Press 2015), pp. 56-8.

^^ My take on this, with lots of further references: ‘An autopsic art: Drawings of “Dr Granville’s mummy’ in the Royal Society archives’, Royal Society Notes and Records 70.2 (2016), Open Access here. There’s a vast literature on photography and race, especially in visual anthropology but also history of science/medicine. Two good starting points: Deborah Poole, Vision, Race, and Modernity (Princeton UP 1997) and Amos Morris-Reich, Race and Photography (Chicago UP 2016 – talk about having to read some stomach-churning stuff for research…).


Photos in the marketplace

I’m not the only photo historian who trawls online auction sites in the name of research, or who can’t pass up a box of old photographs or postcards at an antiques fair. I don’t buy things online very often (especially since discovering how right-wing the owner of one popular auction site is), but now and again, something seems too good to pass up.

This week, I bought a press photograph from 1924:


The front bears the wax pencil marks for the printer to crop the photo to the left, showing just the face of Egypt’s King Fuad. Scrawled out on the right is the white-capped face of the country’s first elected prime minister, Sa’ad Zaghloul. On the back of the photo, a date stamp, more scrawls (‘Wed – City ed.’), and a suggested caption give us a more information about how the photograph was meant to be used:


For about $23, including postage, I’m happy to have bought this piece of history – the history of Egypt, the history of Britain, and the history of the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb – even though Tutankhamun isn’t mentioned.

Britain allowed Egypt to hold parliamentary elections for the first time in 1923, a few months after the discovery of the tomb. The most significant nationalist party at the time, the Wafd, won by a landslide and its leader, Zaghloul pasha, became prime minister. Zaghloul was an elder statesman of the Egyptian independence movement, a former minister of education whom the British had arrested and deported in 1919, when uprisings against the British occupation erupted in Egypt. Zaghloul’s release from exile, and his return to Egypt in 1921, spurred confrontations between Egyptian political factions and with the British. From his home in Florence, photographer Harry Burton wrote to his boss, Albert Lythgoe, in the Egyptian Department of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art: ‘The Egyptian question is as far away from a solution as ever. A great fuss was made over Zag[h]loul’s return at first, although just before I left Cairo I heard that he had entirely lost his head […]’.*

Zaghloul had not lost his head – his temper, perhaps, since he was deported again and allowed to return only for the elections his party won. When Howard Carter’s feud with the antiquities service and the ministry of public works exploded in February 1924, Zaghloul spoke eloquently in defense of his ministry’s actions, throwing Carter’s claim of working only in the scientific interest right back at the Englishman: ‘Howard Carter does not have the right to lock tombs that are not his. In fact, the interest of science forbids this kind of behaviour’.**

But 1924 would prove to be a bad year for Zaghloul, too. On November 24th, General Sir Lee Stack, head of the British army in Sudan, was shot and killed in Cairo, the latest in several acts of violence and reprisals that marked the birth of the new, not-quite-independent Egypt. This time, Britain demanded compensation and a change of course from its former protectorate – hence the resignation of Zaghloul and his cabinet. Zaghloul died three years later, still a national hero for all that he had accomplished and all that he represented. Streets and statues in Cairo and Alexandria commemorate Zaghloul, who is buried in a pharaonic-style mausoleum opposite his house in Cairo, itself a museum in his memory called the Beit al-Umma, ‘The House of the People’.

If I were a newspaper editor in 1924, I’d have tried to make sure both Fuad and Zaghloul made it into the picture, or if I had to choose between the two, I’d have picked Zaghloul’s ‘country casual’ look over Fuad’s waxed moustaches and starched collar. Call me a lower-case republican. At least newspapers were covering the story: International Newsreel Photo was part of William Randolph Hearst’s news agency in the 1920s, so this was intended for the American press. The news angle on the story is a British one, admittedly, but it goes into Egyptian politics at the national level in a way I rarely see in any of the British and American newspapers I read. Not to mention that it’s an episode of British history forgotten by, well, any person or university class I’ve ever mentioned it to in Britain, other than historians specialized in that era.

One more connection to Tutankhamun: Stack and his wife had visited the tomb on November 22nd, 1923. Carter showed them around on what was an important occasion, given Stack’s position. Also part of the delegation that day were the governor (mudir) of Qena province and the mayor (mamur markaz, ‘head of the district’) of Luxor. Some archaeologists and Egyptologists think politics has nothing to do with them, whether that’s politics in the past or the politics of today. But this single photograph and its backstory show how and why politics is everything in Egyptian archaeology. And everywhere, since politics even has to do with the use of online auction sites. This was photograph I just couldn’t pass up. I’ll donate money elsewhere to salve my conscience.


* Letter from Burton to Lythgoe, 28 April 1921, on file with Burton’s correspondence in the archives of the Department of Egyptian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

** The quote – and further discussion of the situation – is from Elliot Colla’s superb book, Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity (Duke University Press, 2007), page 206.

The machete stage

I wrote to a colleague the other day, telling him that I was at the machete stage with the manuscript of my next book, Photographing Tutankhamun. He understood. It’s the stage where you go back through the manuscript you’ve been working on for (in my case) almost two years and realize that you’ve written too much, or put things in the wrong order, or come up with something that might sound nice, or be interesting, but that just doesn’t take your argument forward. So, the machete has to go through the jungle of words. In case there are any treasures among all the greenery I’ve cut back, I keep a file called ‘junked’ for each chapter (or article or story) that I’ve ever written, for as long as I can remember. But I confess, I rarely look at those files. They hang around on my laptop, probably a little relieved to be set free from my cutting and pasting, my deleting and ‘undo’-ing, or my staring at them until it’s time for a coffee break.

Sometimes I have to put the machete down for a day or two, when I reach an unexpected clearing in the manuscript: a place where I’ve failed to write the bit that is clearly needed for the sake of the argument, perhaps because I forgot what the argument was at that point, went for a coffee, and decided (ever the optimist) that it would sort it itself out while I got on with the rest of the chapter. Today was a day that mixed both: I had to take the machete to a few hundred words that trailed off into notes, leaving a big clearing where I could try out a different example and come at the problem from a different direction. A thousand words later, while the messy world went on around me, I think the new direction works.

But I wonder what to do with this particular pile of greenery: it was my attempt to write about the strange case of the ‘head on a lotus’, Object 8 in Howard Carter’s list of the objects he found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, supposedly in the order he found them. Except that these first few items were among, under, or (in a tight space) on top of the rubble that packed the corridor between the sealed and re-sealed doorways to the tomb, cleared in haste and with the objects recorded at some later point. The carved and painted wooden head has a record card, like the objects were meant to, and it is in  Carter’s hand. But it has only the briefest of descriptions, with no measurements given, and it is written in a heavy black ink that differs from the finer pen and ink he used on other cards in this sequence of numbers.

At the bottom of the card for Object 8, his defensive ‘Note’ goes some way to explaining the discrepancy: ‘Was removed from magazine no. 4 by representatives of Egyptian Government and sent to Cairo as evidence of my want of integrity. Hence the head was much damaged.’ In February 1924, Carter declared a unilateral ‘strike’, furious at having to seek permission from the Egyptian antiquities service for decisions at the tomb, for instance over which visitors (of his choice) he could accommodate or which visitors (of the government’s choice) he had to accommodate. Tensions had been simmering for months, and Carter had behaved with an arrogance that did not go over well in the new political landscape: the antiquities service was still run by a French archaeologist, Pierre Lacau, but from 1922, Lacau answered to an Egyptian – yes, an Egyptian, the minister for public works. In February 1924, that minister was Murqus Hanna, who was a member of the governing Wafd party and had long campaigned for Egyptian independence: he had been tried, unsuccessfully, by the British for treason after the uprisings of 1919. It was in part as a result of those uprisings that in 1922 Britain gave Egypt limited self-rule, which included control of its own domestic affairs. It was not what the Wafd and other nationalist movements wanted, but it was better than nothing. It was a step towards independence in a country that Britain had occupied by force for 40 years.

So, what does this have to do with Object 8, the head on a lotus – an object that became such a star on the American tour of Tutankhamun’s treasures in the 1970s that you could buy porcelain reproductions of it in museum gift shops. The reason Carter took umbrage on the record card is that after he walked off site, and Hanna and Lacau withdrew his permission to work at the tomb, the antiquities authorities discovered a Fortnum and Mason crate with this head tucked inside, at the back of a tomb (KV4) that had been used mostly for lunches on site those first two seasons – hence the presence of a crate from the Piccadilly grocers who supplied British victuals to the every corner of the empire. What was such a striking object doing there? Would it really have been forgotten about, when other objects from the corridor – alabaster vases, wine skins, pottery cups, a scarab, fragments of several objects – hadn’t been? Or had it been discovered in the tomb and secreted away? It didn’t look good for Carter. I still think it doesn’t look good, to be honest, but I wondered if the photographs of Object 8 might help pin down the date that it was actually recorded by Carter and his colleagues at the site.

If it was one of the first finds, then according to the recording system Carter used, the odd head, so unlike anything seen before (or since) in Egyptology, should have been among the first things in line. The system entailed several stages: an object was noted on the record cards, usually by Carter, then sprayed with wax (the standard conservation method of the day) by Arthur Mace or Alfred Lucas, and finally photographed by Harry Burton. The men started off using a slim notebook to try to track progress, although the speed and pressures of the work – and the attention from tourists and the press – meant they pretty quickly abandoned that. Whatever Object 8 was (the notebook only gives numbers), it has an ‘x’ in the column marked ‘brought to KV15’, since KV15, the tomb of Seti I, was the tomb the antiquities service gave over to Carter for storage and work space, including photography.

Burton did take photographs of the head-on-a-lotus, but not in 1922, 1923, or 1924. He can only have photographed it in the Cairo Museum, where the Egyptian antiquities officials took it in March 1924, and where Burton was a regular visitor. He often took photographs on request, for his colleagues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Nothing in the correspondence I’ve read from Burton mentions him photographing the head; perhaps it was something best not spoken about, or perhaps the occasion to mention it in writing just didn’t arise. Burton took between 8 and 10 photographs, all on large-plate (18×24 cm) glass negatives. One of them made the front page of the Illustrated London News on May 23rd, 1931: ILN 23-v-31 lotus head on cover. Tutankhamun was still a cover star.

My photograph (and iPhone), all materials copyright the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – who kindly let me spend a week in 2015 consulting their Burton photographs and archives.

I started writing about those photographs because I’m interested in the choices Burton made about positioning works of three-dimensional sculpture in front of the camera (you can see scans made from modern prints of his pictures at this Griffith Institute link). The head-on-a-lotus is the only Tutankhamun object he photographed with such a pale background behind it, and the most subtle of lines between the background and the covered surface on which the head sits. It’s a photograph clearly taken in a controlled situation indoors, perhaps with electric light, in contrast to the the reflected sunlight, and sheltered outdoor setting, in which he photographed Tutankhamun objects at KV15. Most of the glass negatives are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, since Carter gave them a share of the Tutankhamun negatives off and on; they also inherited 500 more after his death. Still more of Burton’s Tutankhamun negatives are in Oxford’s Griffith Institute, which received most of Carter’s records after his death – but the two glass negatives they have for Object 8 are copies carefully made, I imagine by Burton himself, by re-photographing a print. It gets even more complicated than that, once you start trying to track down which negative was where, at what point between 1931 and 1951, when the Met and the Griffith had an exchange of prints and negatives to try to even out their parallel collections.

None of this was getting me any closer to the argument I wanted to make about how the posing of certain objects helped make them look more like ‘sculpture’ as it was understood in Western art, that is, real art, fine art, treasures worthy of being reproduced in porcelain for museum gift shops. The photographs do tell that story (I think), but they started telling another story as well – a story about cover-ups (perhaps), colonial privilege (almost certainly), and copying photographs (definitely), and that story was getting in the way. The split in the side of Tutankhamun’s head, if that’s who it is, doesn’t come from a blade, thank goodness, just a split in the wood as it dried out over centuries, somewhere in his tomb. The machete, I took to my writing. I gave my faltering paragraphs and notes their own ‘junked’ file. Maybe I’ll revisit them, one day.



Let’s start with the banner photo for this website.*

‘Heat’ is everything in this image. Notice the short shadows: it was taken when the sun was near its zenith on May 14th, 1923. That day, from sunrise until 6 pm, dozens of Egyptian men moved 34 crates containing 89 boxes of objects that had been cleared out of the first room (the ‘antechamber’) of the tomb of Tutankhamun over the previous five months. The tomb lay more than five miles from the Nile, and the objects were due to sail down the river on an Egyptian government barge, destined for the antiquities museum in Ismailiya (now Tahrir) Square. There was only one way to get them there, and that was manpower.

Manpower with some help from a light railway line, the kind of track and wheeled cart system used in mining and construction work at the time. It was a staple of such projects throughout the colonial Middle East and Africa – and in archaeology as well, where the carts were used to move earth and rubble. Segments of track could be lifted and re-positioned to get whatever needed to be moved to wherever it needed to get.

What we see here are men coming up alongside the carts in groups of four, each group carrying a section of rails to add to the front, so the train of Tutankhamun’s tomb goods can continue its slow journey. The tomb’s lead excavator, Howard Carter, had this to say about that journey: ‘the work was carried out under a scorching sun, with a shade temperature of considerably over a hundred [38C], the metal rails under these conditions being almost too hot to touch’.

We often look at photographs to see what they show – or who they show. That’s Carter himself in the white pith helmet, striding towards the front of the railway line. But what about their more subtle qualities? How they make us feel, for instance, and what uncertainties, discomforts, or unexpected textures of history they bring out, whether at first glance or with repeat viewings. Their affective qualities, to use an academic turn-of-phrase. It isn’t just about how such photographs affect us now, but how they affected people at the time. What did photography do? What did it mean to stand there, photographing Egyptian men as they scorched their hands for archaeology – a profession that had gone out of its way to exclude Egyptians, except as cheap labour? Why isn’t this particular photograph as well known as others from the Tutankhamun dig – and why isn’t that hundred-degree heat, and the fundamental contribution of the Egyptian workforce, as much a topic of discussion as, say, how Tutankhamun died or what he looked like?

It isn’t clear who took this photograph – possibly a reporter for the London Times named Alfred Merton, who was embedded with the excavation thanks to his newspaper’s exclusive contract with Carter’s team. It was taken with a handheld camera, a Kodak, perhaps. The film negative, around 6 x 10 cm (2.5 by 4.25 inches), survives in Carter’s personal archive in the Griffith Institute at Oxford University, so whoever took the picture must have passed the negative on to him once the film was developed. Prints were made and circulated too, although as far as I can tell, none were published at the time. Still, photography clearly mattered, from taking the picture to printing it, and from sharing the prints and the negative to numbering and filing everything away.

This blog grows out of the research I’ve been doing for more than two years on the photographic archive from the tomb of Tutankhamun. It gives a taster, I hope, of some of the ways I approach photography in archaeology, and the kinds of questions I think photographs allow us – no, require us – to ask. There aren’t necessarily answers. But asking good questions, and looking for better ones, is always a good place to start. Egyptology could do with more heat, more pressure, to take a harder, clearer look at how it created ‘ancient Egypt’ out of sweat and newsprint, crates and steamboats, and the camera’s equivocal eye.

* Thanks to Paul Kuzemczak of GK3 for the site design, and to the Griffith Institute for supplying the image, which is (c) Griffith Institute, University of Oxford.