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Ancient Egyptians get a new home
Assistant Keeper Liam McNamara, left, and museum director Dr Christopher Brown with the mummy of female musician Meresamun
VISITORS to an Oxford museum can embark on fantastic journey covering more than 5,000 years of human occupation of the Nile Valley.
The new £5m galleries showcasing the Ashmolean Museum’s world famous collections from ancient Egypt will open to the public on Saturday morning.
The creation of six new galleries for the collections of Ancient Egypt and Nubia (present day Sudan) will allow the museum to display objects kept in storage for decades – with the number of mummies and coffins on display more than doubled.
Collected over 300 years, the Ashmolean’s Egyptian holdings also tell fascinating stories of archaeological discovery in new settings designed by Rick Mather Architects, who were responsible for the Ashmolean’s £61m extension opened by the Queen.
The new galleries, and the rehousing of some 40,000 ancient objects, represent the second phase of a redevelopment that has transformed the museum in Beaumont Street, the oldest museum in Britain and the oldest university museum in the world.
The Ashmolean is now attracting a million visitors a year, compared to 350,000 annually before, and in August, VisitEngland put the Ashmolean in the top 20 free visitor attractions in England, receiving the highest visitor numbers of all the free museums and galleries outside London.
Dr Christopher Brown, director of the Ashmolean, said the new Egyptian galleries should attract even more, by opening up what has always been one of the museum’s biggest draws. With new lighting, display cases and interpretation, the project completes the Ashmolean’s Ancient World floor.
The Ashmolean’s collections have included important Egyptian artefacts since 1683, when the museum was founded.
It has long been recognised as one of the finest collections outside Cairo but until now lack of space meant many treasures remained in the basement.
Dr Brown said: “Rick Mather’s design for the galleries now allows us to display material that for reasons of conservation has not been seen for up to half a century.”
Three Roman mummies, excavated by Flinders Petrie, the founding father of Egyptology in the UK, at the Roman cemeteries of Hawara , south-west of Cairo, in 1911 are among the Ashmolean’s “new” exhibits. They feature three beautifully restored mummy portraits of well-off young people . The oldest, on linen, is of a young woman dating from 55-70AD.
The new galleries are divided under six main themes: Egypt at its Origins; Dynastic Egypt and Nubia; Life After Death in Ancient Egypt; The Amarna Revolution; Egypt in the Age of Empires; and Egypt Meets Greece and Rome.
The first gallery is created in space previously occupied by the museum shop, with the centre of this gallery dominated by striking limestone statues of the fertility God Min, dating from 3,000 BC. They are among the oldest preserved stone sculptures in the world.