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Object of the Month – May 2012

Egyptian necklace with beads and amulets

Egyptian necklace

This necklace isn’t as old as you might think. It was made in Egypt for a tourist 100 to 200 years ago. In the 1800s Egypt became an increasingly popular tourist destination and these visitors were keen to bring back souvenirs of their trip. This could be something made as a souvenir, or a fake made to look much older than it was.

However, in this case the beads themselves are much older than the necklace.

As the beads were restrung relatively recently we cannot be certain where in Egypt they were originally found. However, we do know what all the larger beads – or amulets – stood for. These figures provided magical protection for the wearer, in this life or the afterlife.

The amulets include two eye of Horus (wadjet), Isis (recognisable by the throne on her head), four Tawerets (pregnant hippopotamus), two Anubis figures (with jackal head), two Bes figures (who protected children) and four striding men.

This fascinating necklace belonged to a professor of Egyptology at Oxford who worked in Egypt with Flinders Petrie, a famous archaeologist.

The Herbert has about 30 objects from ancient Egypt, all donated by individuals. You can see some of them on display in the History Gallery and a drawer of small objects in What’s in Store.


Secret Egypt – objects in detail

Shabti box © Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

As Secret Egypt nears the end of its time at the Herbert, I am taking the opportunity to look at some of its fascinating objects in more detail. If you would like to find out more about some of the objects come along to our final Revealing Objects gallery talk. I’m giving the last one about our mummy, Perenbast, on Wednesday 1st June 1-1.30pm.

Shabti box

Ancient Egyptian history spans thousands of years, from early settlers in the Nile valley over 7000 years ago to the last use of hieroglyphic writing around AD 400. While some aspects of the culture, religion, writing and daily life remained the same for hundreds of years there were still many changes. When designing an exhibition about ancient Egypt it is very difficult to convey this huge period of time and all the changes within it. Sometimes we generalise and use the most common examples of practice.

Shabtis, which would have been stored in this box, are a good example of this. Shabtis feature in almost all exhibitions about ancient Egypt. They were placed in tombs and would magically come to life to do the tomb owner’s bidding in the afterlife. However shabtis were not placed in all tombs, they were in use from about 1900 to 300 BC – long after the pyramids of Giza were built.

Over time the number of shabtis included in tombs increased, so much so boxes were made to contain them. This box dates to about 1300 to 1185 BC and belonged to a scribe called Ptah-hetep. Here you can see him worshipping the god Horus and goddess Maat. Ptah-hetep is wearing a very fine pleated linen garment with a decorative collar and bracelet.


A review of Secret Egypt

 Secret Egypt has been open to visitors for nearly three months now and it is a useful time to review what it has achieved. The headline news is the number of visitors who have come through the door of the exhibition. To date, over 25,000 visitors have enjoyed Secret Egypt making it the most successful exhibition ever put on by the Herbert. For certain, some of this success is due to the popularity of the subject of ancient Egypt but judging from the comments received from visitors, people have really enjoyed the exhibition itself. There have been a number of repeat visitors which is always a good sign as well as considerable use of the exhibition by schools and families who have experienced our excellent learning workshops.

What have people liked about Secret Egypt? A small sampling of the several thousand comment cards left by mainly young visitors to the exhibition provides some insight into what people have made of the exhibition. The interactive games appear to have been a particular success. One adult said:

‘It was a wonderful display. Thank you for adding activities for the children, it made the exhibit more exciting’.

The mummy was a particular hit and many seem to be excited by the fact that they were seeing a real ancient Egyptian: One comment said ‘I can’t believe I actually saw a real mummy’

For one young boy Secret Egypt appeared to confirm his future career path:

‘Thanks for the exhibition! It really gave me an insight into the life of Perenbast and the Ancient Egyptians from Finn (Future Egyptologist)’

Three speakers from Mummies, Myths and Magic - Joyce Tyldesley, Joyce Filer and Stephen Snape

The Secret Egypt events programme has been well attended with hundred enjoying talks by well-known Egyptologists such as Aidan Dodson and Joyce Tydlesley.  There are still plenty of excellent events left up until the end of the exhibition on June 5th so look out for details.

We are currently making preparations for Secret Egypt to travel on to its next venue in Torquay after it finishes here. The exhibition space is quite different at Torquay and there has been some detailed thought about how the exhibition will be laid out there. Secret Egypt will be on in Torquay until November 2011 and we hope it has the same sort of response to what it has received in Coventry.

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Secret Egypt – objects in detail

Now that Secret Egypt has been open for a few weeks I am taking the opportunity to look at some of its fascinating objects in more detail. If you would like to find out more about some of the objects come along to one of our Revealing Objects gallery talks.
The next one is by Chris on Wednesday 4th May 1-1.30pm.

Cartouche of Ramesses III © Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Cartouche of Ramesses III © Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Wooden plaque with cartouche

Sometimes photographs can be misleading, so although this wooden object may look large here, if you are looking for it in the gallery it is only about 11cm high. You might already recognise the knotted rope around the hieroglyphs as a cartouche, but what does it all mean?

From about 2900 BC all Egyptian rulers had five names. The two easiest to recognise are written with a cartouche ring around them. Egyptologists call these names the praenomen and the nomen. In Egyptian writing the praenomen comes first and is the king’s coronation name. The nomen is written second and is the king’s birth name. This is the one we use today.

This cartouche contains Ramesses III’s birth name and it has two parts to it. The first five symbols are read Ramesses, which means Re [the sun god] bore him.

The last two symbols read Hekaiunu – ruler of Heliopolis. Heliopolis, the Greek version of the ancient Egyptian city Iunu, was located in the Nile Delta area. Heliopolis was the main centre for the worship for the sun god Re.

In his name Ramesses III is not only being linked to the sun god, but also to a very famous and well respected king – Ramesses the Great. You can find out more about Ramesses the Great, or Ramesses II, in Secret Egypt.

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February half term is coming!

Finally after months of preparations we are ready to open our doors to the hundreds of families we are expecting over the next few months. We have already had our first schools through the doors earlier in the week, but next week it will be the turn of our family visitors as they explore our Secret Egypt exhibition and take part in our hands-on family activities over February half term and beyond.

Egyptian ActivityMy main priority as Family Learning Officer was to provide a variety of workshops that will encourage our families to explore and engage with the themes within our Secret Egypt exhibition. This is not always as easy as it sounds as there are so many different ages, tastes and abilities to suit! This is where working as part of the Learning Team is of great benefit as all our research for the schools sessions, including many visits to other galleries and museums, has helped to positively shape the plans for the family programme.  Here I was able to identify what topics to focus on, what had the most potential to be developed into creative workshops and what would further encourage learning outside of the classroom.

I have tried to use all this new knowledge and research to work on the content for the next 20 workshops which cover all the holidays from now until June, early years sessions and the ‘bring your dad’ event day!.

 This has included:

  • Working on the content first and then with the designers on the look and layout of a family trail that encourages visits all the permanent galleries, promotes the use of our Secret Egypt family break out space (more details below) and also combines with an art and craft activity that we will then use to create a fantastic Egyptian display to show our other visitors!
  •  Ordering stacks of unusual and exciting materials, cutting up decorative papers, metals and card, working out templates and making examples, all to make sure we are all prepared for our very popular art and craft sessions.
  •  Co-ordinating the use of our Studio space so our family visitors can use it as an extra activity/break out area. Here we have designed a make-and-take activity that can be done without the need for a facilitator! So, if the activity room downstairs or the exhibition becomes too full, then there is always an area for families to go and do something.
  •  Learning about our 3000 year old Egyptian artefacts and how to use this information for family object handling sessions. Our families will get the chance to handle genuine objects and try on costume that would have been used by ancient Egyptians.

Printing off hundreds of trails, writing up marketing content and working on a timetable for our family activity facilitators has meant for a very busy 6 months. I am now really looking forward to the families coming in and being able to enjoy the benefits of a lot of hard work for such a fantastic exhibition!

We look forward to welcoming you!

Mel, Family Learning Officer
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It’s here at last!

Robin and Rachael dressed as their alter egos, Anubis and Perenbast

It has long been anticipated, but the wait is over and Secret Egypt has arrived!

The whole museum has been working hard at getting Secret Egypt on its way and ready for the grand opening, which happened last Thursday and was a huge success, so now it’s time to get under way with the flow of school groups who have booked on to visit us.

The learning team travelled around the country last year visiting different museums, looking around ancient Egyptian galleries and observing their schools sessions, all in the hope of achieving an enjoyable, engaging and exciting schools programme for the Herbert. The process of bringing this knowledge together with our own ideas, experience and interests has resulted in two Active Learning sessions, with one focusing on Life and Death in ancient Egypt and another one about hieroglyphics, called Scribe School.

Ancient Egypt is one of the most popular topics covered in the Key Stage 2 curriculum, so we were expecting the interest in Secret Egypt to be high and are thrilled at the various schools we have attracted from Coventry, Warwickshire and further a field.

Hand crafted resources made by the learning team

As part of the preparation for these sessions the learning team have been busy reading, painting, writing, typing, emailing, training, sewing, knitting, shopping, cutting, tidying and even dressing up! It’s fair to say we’ve been a busy bunch over the last few months and the workload is not going to lessen for the duration of the exhibition as we physically deliver the school sessions, but it is one of the best things about being on a learning team, because we’re certainly kept on our toes, and no two days are the same.   

So what will pupils be learning about as they come to the Herbert for the schools programme? Well, here a few facts and snippets of information to give you an idea:

Me looking very happy with my felted stomach!

  • The ancient Egyptians didn’t think the brain was a very important organ, so rather than carefully preserving it in canopic jars or place it back into the body as they did with the heart during mummification, they would simply pull it out of the nose, throw it away and sometimes they even fed it to cats! EURGH!
  • The process of mummification could take around 70 days altogether – that’s the same length of an average school term.
  • The ancient Egyptians strongly believed in a number of Gods and also in carrying amulets with them in life and death to protect them. The most famous of these amulets are the eye of Horus and the Scarab beetle, but a favourite of ours in Bes. He’s a little dwarf-like figure who would protect children and families. His amulet was often placed in people’s homes and their bedrooms.
  • Only 1 out of every 100 ancient Egyptians were able to read and write and they were always boys who trained as scribes.
  • Hieroglyphics were first translated because of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which features the hieroglyphic, demotic and ancient Greek languages all saying the same thing.

Well that’s it from me for now… hope to see you at Secret Egypt!

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Building Secret Egypt

With only two weeks to go the installation of the Secret Egypt exhibition is gathering pace.

It is amazing to see all those things that we have been discussing and drawing up on paper becoming a physical reality. It’s also an anxious time – is everything going to fit?  Do we have all the right equipment to do the job? Have we enough people to do all the things that need doing? On this last score there seems no need to worry as the staff of the Herbert have come together magnificently: Curators, conservators, members of the learning and outreach teams, site management assistants and volunteers have been working together to paint, build and move cases and props.

Conservator Martin Grahn checking a mount for one of the loans from Birmingham Museum

Secret Egypt has also been one of the most ambitious exhibition designs consisting of striking coloured banners to denote each section , nearly 30 major large graphic panels  with colourful images,  a vast landscape backdrop showing the Nile valley,  and many labels for the interactive and objects. Yet to come is the work of the creative lighting designer which will produce the theatrical setting to display the two hundred plus objects.  Put together we hope this will create a magical world which will both entertain and educate.

As all the work on Secret Egypt is going on we hear that school bookings for the facilitated sessions are doing extremely well with the first two months of the exhibition almost completely booked. So if you are a teacher from the school who hasn’t booked yet you might want to contact us soon!

Little did we know when we first had the idea of putting on an exhibition about ancient Egypt how events would turn so dramatically in Egypt itself.  Our thoughts go out to the people of Egypt with the sincere hope that a peaceful and long-term solution can be found for the current troubles. A sad casualty of the unrest has been some of the remarkable treasures in the Cairo Museum including statues of Tutankhamen. Ancient Egypt is an important part of the heritage and identity of the modern country and it is hoped that everything can be done to safeguard its priceless artefacts for future generations both in Egypt and the rest of the world.

You can view more pictures of the installation on our Flickr page.


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The Eagle has landed…


Er, or should I say the falcon has returned? This little guy is one of our series of Egyptian Explorer amulets (all lovingly handcrafted by Herbert staff) which are currently travelling the world. He was released into the wild last August and returned home to roost in December. OK – I’ll stop with the ridiculous puns; you get the point.

Horus the falcon is a Travel Bug. Travel Bugs are trackable items which are moved around the world by geocachers. Geocachers are people who hide and seek containers called geocaches. Geocachers place Travel Bugs into geocaches; another geocacher then takes the Travel Bug and leaves it in another geocache, and so on. The Travel Bugs move from cache to cache to fulfill a goal set by the Travel Bug owner. (If all of this sounds bizarre to you, just think of geocaching as high-tech treasure hunting using a GPS (SatNav) device. You can read all about it and Travel Bugs here:'s Gold Funerary Mask

Through the kindness of geocaching strangers, Horus here has fulfilled his goal of travelling from Coventry to London to pay his respects to Howard Carter – now a resident of Putney Vale Cemetery. Howard Carter was a foremost British Egyptologist and archaeologist who excavated in Egypt during the early 1900s. He is perhaps most remembered for being the principal archaeologist behind the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb. There is a wealth of information, including scanned pages from Carter’s diary, photographs of the excavation and a database of objects excavated from Tutankhamen’s tomb on the Griffith Institute website.

Horus is the first Travel Bug to return home to the Herbert. At the moment, we have about 30 Travel Bugs in circulation around the world. We are hoping that more will return between now and the close of Secret Egypt in June 2011. While Secret Egypt is here, we will be displaying the Travel Bugs in the museum with journals and photographs of their journeys. Visitors will be able to find out more about their journeys and the influence of Egypt both in Britain and abroad.

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Secret Egypt: Part 3

On a cold winter’s morning in late November three intrepid explorers set forth from Coventry to a secret location in Birmingham to collect a treasure for the Secret Egypt exhibition! OK, that makes the trip sound a lot more glamorous than it was.

In reality it was absolutely freezing and there was a reasonable about of lifting, shifting and careful manoeuvring. As you can see, the treasure came in two parts and, as it is mostly made from delicate plaster, it had to be handled and packed with care. The most difficult part was finding a way of securing the delicate model to the side of the van, to prevent it from moving.

Carefully does it... © Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery

You may be wondering what the object is and why it’s going in an exhibition about ancient Egypt… The model is of Abu Simbel, an ancient temple right in the south of Egypt. The model was made in the 1960s for a film – Khartoum. It’s a very accurate copy of the real temple, down to the hieroglyphs along the top and the earthquake damage to the second statue, which is why we chose to display it.

Where does this go? © Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery

The temple itself was commissioned by Ramesses II, or Ramesses the Great, one of the kings featured in Secret Egypt – How well do we know the ancient Egyptians? The actual temple is enormous – most people only reach half way up the plinth the statues sit on. As we can’t get the real temple in our exhibition this model gives a great sense of the scale of Ramesses’ buildings and of his achievements.

Almost ready to go! © Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery


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Talking, travelling, waterways and summer fun!

Family enjoying craft activities at the Herbert

 In my previous blog I mentioned the work the Herbert learning team have been doing to prepare for upcoming temporary exhibitions and the schools programmes we offer to go along with them. Well that is all still happening, but I thought I’d give you a catch up on how things have been going. 

1. The From Here to There exhibition is now approaching its final week of being on display and so far I’ve gone through 13 guided talks around the exhibition and have another 5 to go, which all means it’s been a very good success. This was the first time we have catered guided talks around an arts exhibition to Secondary schools, so it was new ground for us, but the school groups who have visited have all said how they felt the benefits of the insight into the art works and how useful it was to the pupils’ development and research work, so hopefully it is an area we can explore again in the future. I have personally thoroughly enjoyed leading on this project, as I have an arts background myself and I am a particular fan of Tracey Emin and Marc Quinn, 2 of the featured artists. 

2. Our travels around the country have continued in our quest to research how museums are delivering the subject of Ancient Egypt to school groups. Two of my colleagues recently visited the British Museum in London and I have just visited Bolton with another colleague to meet with one of their learning officers. It did require both of us being on the train at 6am and 3 changes along the way, but it was well worth it, as Bolton museum is one of the sites who are going to be lending the Herbert artefacts to contribute towards our Secret Egypt meeting so it was very interesting to see how they bought the topic to life with the use of handling collections, costume and different activities around the gallery. 

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