Museums may be closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but one Manchester-based academic has found a way to bring Egyptology to people in the comfort of their own homes.
Egyptologist and curator at Manchester Museum, Campbell Price, hosts an Egyptology in Lockdown livestream every Thursday on his Twitter account. An honorary research fellow at the University of Liverpool, Price obtained his BA, MA and PhD in Egyptology and has been working at Manchester Museum for almost 10 years, which he calls his “dream job”. The museum is home to more than 18,000 objects from Ancient Egypt and Sudan, making it one of the largest Egyptology collections in the UK.
As curator of Egypt and Sudan, Price’s job is busy and varied. His duties include answering enquiries, designing new exhibitions and giving lectures. “We get research requests from people studying about a particular object,” says Price over a Zoom call. “So, you can give them a missing piece of the puzzle, which is really rewarding. Being a university museum, we bring researchers in, we teach ourselves and we do a bit of TV and radio work.”
Rather brilliantly, he also has a Blue Peter badge, which he earned for mummifying an orange live on the show.
Egyptology in lockdown
In March 2020, Manchester Museum was already partly closed due to construction work. But when the first lockdown came into effect, the museum fully shut its doors and staff no longer had access to the building. So, a former press officer came up with the idea of hosting Periscope livestreams on Twitter. Egyptology in Lockdown was marketed as a family-friendly opportunity for ‘budding Egyptologists’ to ask their burning questions. Viewers can tweet their questions to Price in advance, or ask him directly during the live streams.
“Egyptology in Lockdown became a weekly thing,” explains Price. “It increases access to people who are far away from Manchester and for people who, for whatever reason, might not have wanted to go onto a university campus.
“I always get enough questions to fill half an hour and the viewing figures are pretty good. We got about 1,000 people watching on the first day. The good thing is it’s interactive. So, if you’re home-schooling and your kids ask, ‘how did they build the pyramids?’, sure, a teacher can share that information and that’s great. But people like the idea of an Egyptologist telling you that ‘this is how they built the Pyramids’, or ‘thanks for the question, Chloe, aged seven, this is the answer’.”
Visual aids are also important for keeping viewers engaged. “It’s not like a Zoom lecture,” says Price, grabbing a pen and paper. “My favourite thing is if you ask me ‘how do I write my name in hieroglyphs?’.” Within seconds, Price writes my name in hieroglyphs and shows me through his webcam. “People like that, someone doing something live, like a party trick.”
With schools currently closed, Egyptology in Lockdown offers something different for children who are learning from home. Young viewers often ask questions about Key Stage 2 curriculum topics such as mummification.
“Viewers are interested in famous people. So I get asked a lot about kings and queens, Tutankhamun, Cleopatra and the pyramids.”
The universal appeal of Ancient Egypt
Why does Ancient Egypt hold such a fascination to people all over the world? Colonial exploitation, Price suggests, could be a reason why (he elaborates further on this topic in the Manchester Museum podcast).
“There’s something of a sweet spot of mystery, colour and glamour about Ancient Egyptians. It’s great to celebrate and encourage that. But at Manchester Museum, we are trying to have more open and honest conversations about colonialism.
“We’ve done exhibitions about Partition and India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, those are interesting subjects. The British Empire was very active there, but people forget that Britain invaded Egypt in 1882. Egypt was called ‘a veiled protectorate’ of the British Empire. People went to Egypt which is, strategically and geopolitically, very importantly placed. It’s got what was the Suez Canal and the overland route that cut down the time to South Asia from Europe. It wasn’t until 1956 that the British finally left Egypt.”
He continues: “Ancient Egypt was also known from classical Greek and Roman writers, from the Bible, Torah and Qur’an. So, people feel like Egypt is familiar, but strange at the same time. We have stuff in Manchester Museum, like a basket that’s 4,000 years old, but it looks like you can buy it in B&Q today.
“It’s that mixture of strange, exotic and familiar. There is a substratum of racism, where people in the West thought of people in Egypt as unworthy inheritors of a great past of ancient civilisations.”
What does the future hold for Manchester Museum?
Things are looking brighter but Manchester Museum will remain closed for the foreseeable future. Does Price believe there is hope for the heritage sector, post-pandemic?
“At the moment, you can’t go to a museum or gallery to see mummies or dinosaurs, so that makes people who are stuck at home want to do it more. When we reopen, partially or finally, we expect bigger visitor numbers.”
“But you have to balance that against people who may be anxious about big groups. We will continue some digital activities, of course, but that will be in support of and complementary to physical, in-person galleries, exhibitions and events. By the end of 2022, we’ll have a brand new South Asia gallery of art and material culture in partnership with The British Museum, a new China gallery and a temporary exhibition hall, where the first exhibition will be Golden Mummies of Egypt.”
By November 2022, Price predicts that there will be “a surge in interest” in Egyptology, as it will be 100 years since the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb (the boy-king’s tomb was discovered by the archaeologist Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings on November 4, 1922). The 100th anniversary promises to be an exciting time for Price, especially if Manchester Museum can safely welcome visitors again.