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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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Visitor-Fluff index, Bean-bags and Improvisation

So much for thinking things would calm down once Secret Egypt was launched…. The place is heaving, which is great, but the resultant fluff-balls are trying very hard to get the better of us – and it’s not as if there’s hundreds of woolly coats and scarves around to shed in this weather. I’ve noticed for a while that the Eliot piano in the old foyer needs dusting daily when we have families queuing nearby to get into make & take sessions, but its plinth has never needed the same treatment before. And as for Secret Egypt itself, you’re talking pan-fulls of the stuff! Quite apart from other factors, with all the organic materials on display in there we don’t want to encourage insect pests – which love to eat fluff, hence my ‘interest’. I’ve not gone quite as far as trying to work out how many grammes per 100 visitors, but I could certainly make a stab at a back-up visitor count if the automatic system went down!

My role in Secret Egypt turned out to be rather different from planned, but was mostly enjoyable and, um, stimulating – to find ways of supporting previously unseen objects, which could be produced more or less on the spot from materials to hand, as many of the items could only be handled while a courier from the lending institution was present. My colleague was full-time on perspex mounts, so I got to play with plastazote foam, polystyrene beads and even cardboard tubes when some of the pots which were expected to stand firm on their own turned out not to. Conservators’ squirreling instincts came to the rescue several times over, I’ve renewed my acquaintance with the sewing machine and progressed to funny shaped bean-bags; 3D ones would have been better still in places, but there wasn’t time to ‘play’, and converting between 2D & 3D fries my brain! I just hope I’ve managed to keep the poly beads under control: one of my early projects at the archives (20 years ago) was increasing their stock of book cushions. As a result, I was looking forward to freedom from haunting by small, round, white, floaty things. I’m not just making this up – after 10 years or so of finding them every time I went behind or under, I thought I’d exorcised the last of them; but when we dismantled the benches there they still were, along with loads of fluff. Oh dear……

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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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Creating “Real or Fake” for Secret Egypt

To say you love your job because of the people is usually a cliché, but on one soggy, bleak Winter day I found myself well and truly confirming that cliché. We were filming for our latest team project “Real or Fake” the game which will feature in the forthcoming Secret Egypt exhibition.  A green screen is at the end of the day, just a sheet of green paper, but it turns our crew into excited big kids, me included.  The excited kids include film makers Jo Sampson, Simon Wellman and Jim Turner, our boss Rich Elms steering the script and me, taking photos. Our host for the game and former employee, Ben Goodwin arrives in a gold, lame jacket to complete the scene; I know I am in for an epic day.

The Legendary Lame JacketThe brief we were given was to produce an interactive game based on the Real, Fake or Copy section in the exhibition.  Our solution was to produce a “Blockbusters style game show”; Ben would be the host and introduce the objects, providing players with a few clues along the way.  I’ve never seen anyone camp it up so delightfully, adding a touch of the Dale Winton to our Bob Holness aspirations (now you can guess how old I am!).  Ben had found his lame jacket in a shop in Birmingham, the owner let him in with her key so being the only one there he was obliged to buy something, and luckily his choice was perfect. Read the rest of this entry

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 4


Steve and Alice check the structure (c) Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

A quick update on the plinth and boxing for the Abu Simbel model….

Steve and Alice, our technical team, have been working hard on all aspects of the exhibition build. Having the model early has allowed them to build its plinth and some boxing to hide the unfinished edges. I think it looks great and can’t wait to see it in the exhibition!

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