How we made The Victorian Queens of Ancient Egypt

Rare intact mummy cartonnage brought back by Amelia Oldroyd (in Bagshaw Museum) All photos copyright Samira Ahmed. No reuse without permission.

Have you ever wondered why ancient Egypt lives in so many museum collections across Britain? Not to mention Germany, France, the USA and other former colonial powers. Why it haunts our dreams and our films and since childhood our imaginations? Well that’s the starting point for the documentary I made with Simon and Thomas Guerrier. The short answer is, because of Victorian collectors, several of them women, who went out to the Nile Valley hungry for adventure, fascinated by the beautiful, rich and complex world of the Pharoahs but also driven by a self-defined desire to “save” a worthy culture from the “primitive” present.

With producer Simon Guerrier and archaeologist Heba Abd el Gawad (centre)

The seed for this documentary was meeting and interviewing the remarkable Cairo-born Egyptologist Heba Abd el Gawad for Front Row. At the time she was completing her phD at Durham University and had co-curated the 2016 Beyond Beauty exhibition at Two Temple Place about ancient Egyptian culture around the body and transformation. The exquisite pieces including intimate makeup containers, jewellery and masks had been drawn from regional collections all over from England.

From Marianne Brocklehurst’s journal (courtesy of West Park Museum)

The impact of the exhibition made some local MPs and officials think whether these collections could, if revitalised in the right way, help revive their towns, attract tourists and locals alike, after years of struggling with central government budget cuts. But It also got me thinking that there as a bigger story to be told about the women collectors. Who were they? How did they manage to get out there at a time when even wealthy women’s lives were so circumscribed? Part of the documentary would need to be a very current conversation about colonial era looting and the ethical dilemma of where these objects should be, and how, when it came to the human remains of mummies, they should be displayed. Talking to Heba it was clear she had a unique perspective, as an Egyptian expert in the field, having also studied the Victorian collectors themselves.

Marianne Brocklehurst’s study in Macclesfield Sunday School Museum with unlabelled mummified hands in cabinet

Amelia Edwards was the most famous. She was the founder of the Egypt Exploration Fund (EFF), which crowd-financed the expeditions of the so-called father of Egyptology, Flinders Petrie – the renowned British Victorian explorer. But we saw a special story to be told about the mill heiresses from the North of England, who used wealth from now long lost industries — spinning silk and Egyptian cotton, to bring back these cultural riches for their towns. So we focussed in on three remarkable women: Marianne Brocklehurst from Macclesfield, Amelia Oldroyd from Dewsbury and Annie Barlow from Bolton who all had amazing stories. In the case of Brocklehurst amazing diaries which we are grateful to West Park Museum for showing us. Can I stop here to thank all the remarkable museum teams and Egyptologists and archeologists who gave up so much time and expertise to help us. Special thanks to Simon and Thomas Guerrier who are always such an inspiration to work with. I remind readers and listeners to the programme of the enduring challenge for local authority cultural insitutions in the face of year on year central government grant cuts.

Bolton Museum has invested heavily in a magnificent new gallery to showcase Barlow’s treasures and celebrate the real lives, not just the death rituals, of Ancient Eygptians. We found children bursting with excitement, full of knowledge and passion. We also found connections to modern women archaeologists who, proving the transformations in British social and gender mobility in the past century, had been directly inspired in their careers by being taken to see these Victorian women’s Egyptian finds in childhood.

With Danielle Wootton in Bolton Museum

Danielle Wootton’s Bolton family roots included a grandmother and an aunt who had worked in the Barlow and Jones family mills and shared stories with her about those times.

Rebecca Holt in front of her favourite statuette of Goddess Ti in West Park Museum

Postgraduate Rebecca Holt had become passionate about Egyptology in her childhood, as a result of being taken to see the mummy case in the local West Park Museum, built by Brocklehurst with her own money to house her collection.

Mummy case and jewellery from Abydos collected by Amelia Oldroyd (Bagshaw Museum)

Council staffing cuts and budget changes have hit West Park Museum badly. Dewsbury Museum, which housed Oldroyd’s collection shut in 2016 with the pieces, including a magnificent cartonnage moved to the atmospheric mansion of Bagshaw Museum in Batley. Influenced by the impact of the Beyond Beauty exhibition, Kirklees Council has invested in a magnificent reconstructed burial chamber from Abydos in the Bagshaw Museum to display tomb jewellery and its mummy case, which is wonderful, but sadly also suffers from restricted opening hours and has lost its specialist curators.

With Bagshaw Museum curator and guide Katina

I’m grateful to the museum team and especially curator Katina Bill who showed us round this remarkable Gothic building museum and archives for our recording.

Records of objects brought by Amelia Oldroyd for Dewsbury Egypt Exploration Fund (in Bagshaw Museum)


Bagshaw Museum, Batley where Amelia Oldroyd’s collection now lives


She also brought out the fascinating old leatherbound record books which list all Oldroyd’s purchases as an agent for the local Dewsbury branch of the EFF.

Marianne Brocklehurt’s smuggled mummy case in Macclesfield Silk Museum (the story of how the body was dumped is told in our programme)

Two more Egyptologists provided a living connection to the Victorian EEF adventurers to the modern day: Chris Naunton, author of Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt and Alice Stevenson, associate professor of museum studies at the Institute of Archaeology at UCL.

Chris Naunton (c) Alice Stevenson (r)

Both are very aware of the ethical issues around excavation and restitution. Chris is a former director of the Egypt Exploration Society – the modern incarnation of EFF – and was taught by Danielle Wootton. He offered a valuable insight into how the experience of excavations could shape people’s attitudes. Chris and Alice’s passion for archaeology was also shaped by their early experience of museum collections. She gave valuable insight into the political attitudes of the day, including within Egypt, against which these controversial extractions of ancient Egyptian tomb artefacts took place.

Heba offered valuable perspective and insight into how museums have to be honest about the history of their collections. She spoke about the importance of museums having a responsibility to promote social justice, not just for the living, but for the dead.

As with my last Sunday Feature, Laura Ingalls’ America, I’ve tried to show how women of the nineteenth century can still inspire us with their remarkable achievements in the face of strong patriarchal barriers. Brocklehurst’s fascinating diaries show how she protected a female servant being beaten by the cook – sacking him and promoting the maid to his job.

Both Amelia Edwards and, it’s believed, Marianne Brocklehurst were double pioneers as lesbian women living independent lives with their partners. It is impossible not to be filled with admiration and emotion on visiting the modest double grave of Brocklehurst and her life partner Mary Booth just five miles from Macclesfield in the village of Wincle and yet thousands of miles from Egypt where they had their adventures.

However as with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s legacy, museums cannot and should not ignore the racism and colonial attitudes that are a part of the story too, even if it makes many people feel uncomfortable. Like the world of the ancient Egyptians, the past informs the present.

The Victorian Queens of Ancient Egypt is on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday February 3rd at 645pm and on BBC sounds/online/podcast/downloadable afterwards.

Further reading

The women who love mummies (BBC News feature Feb 2nd 2019)

The lure of ancient Egypt is a way to revitalise faded industrial towns (Guardian Jan 21st 2019)

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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