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Dr Daniel Soliman, Craig Middleton and Emma Macdonald, 16 December 2023

JESSI ENGLAND: Welcome, everybody, to the National Museum of Australia on what is the opening weekend of our major new exhibition, Discovering Ancient Egypt – very exciting. My name is Jessi England and I’m the Head of Programs here at the National Museum. I’d like to start by acknowledging that we meet on the lands of the Ngunnawal, Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples. I’d like to pay my respects to elders, past, present and emerging, and also to acknowledge any First Nations people who are joining us here today.

We’re really excited to kick off what is going to be a really dynamic program of events in association with the exhibition, with this first event, our Curators in conversation, I know we are absolutely in for a treat. I’m going to leave it to Emma Macdonald to introduce Daniel Soliman and Craig Middleton. But I would say that we are very lucky today to have Daniel here for what is his only public appearance as part of the exhibition before he heads back to the Netherlands. Daniel has been here with us for the past week and said to me just earlier that he does feel like he’s become one of the staff here, and has been treated to lots of things Canberra and Australian, as well as obviously a lot of engagement with media and it’s just been a delight to have you here with us.

We’re also very delighted to welcome back to the Museum, Emma Macdonald, to facilitate this conversation. Many of you will no doubt know Emma, but it’s my pleasure to formally introduce her today. Emma Macdonald OAM is Associate Editor of HerCanberra. She’s a multi-award-winning journalist, advocate and businesswoman. Emma began her journalistic career with the Australian Financial Review before moving to the Canberra Times, rising to become the Bureau Chief. After 23 years as a newspaper journalist, she moved to the online media platform HerCanberra in 2016. Emma has won numerous awards for her work, including two Walkley Awards and the John Douglas British Prize for Journalism. She is dedicated to promoting women in media, becoming convener of Women in Media Canberra in 2015. Emma is also the co-founder of the maternal health charity Send Hope not Flowers, and in 2010 won ACT Telstra Business Woman of the Year for Send Hope’s work. Thank you for being here. I’d like to welcome to the stage Emma, Daniel and Craig.


EMMA MACDONALD: Thank you, Jessi. I guess one of the impacts of doing all that in my career is that now I am officially old and need glasses to read. I would like to extend a warm welcome to all of you here today. We’ve got a real treat ahead of us. Before I start, I too want to acknowledge on behalf of all of us, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, as traditional owners of this land and I would like to honour their resilience and creativity, and to thank them for having us in this place and to any First Nations people attending today, I extend this sincere gratitude. Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.

On Thursday, the Discovering Ancient Egypt extravaganza was finally unveiled here at the National Museum of Australia, and it comes to us from the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities, and it represents more than 220 fascinating objects spanning over 3,000 years of society and culture. It includes intricately decorated coffins, Book of the Dead scrolls, stunning art, jewellery, sculptures alongside everyday artefacts which give us an incredible insight into how ordinary Egyptians lived, and that’s a big topic that we’re going to unpack today.

Now it is my great pleasure to officially welcome Dr Daniel Soliman, who is an Egyptologist. Hands up those who’ve always wanted to be an Egyptologist. He’s a researcher and a renowned expert in ancient Egyptian history, and since 2019 Daniel has been a curator at the Egyptian and Nubian collection at the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, the Netherlands, conducting research and creating and contributing to exhibitions such as Discovering Ancient Egypt. Among his interests are the histories of collecting Egyptian antiquities and the many ways in which ancient Egypt is interpreted in contemporary pop culture. Daniel is also co-director of the excavations carried out at the ancient site of Saqqara in Egypt by the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities and its partners. It really is wonderful that he’s here in Canberra, also the week before Christmas, so welcome Daniel.

DANIEL SOLIMAN: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

EMMA MACDONALD: Craig Middleton, he’s also a bit of a legend in his own lifetime. He is a Senior Curator at the National Museum here, and he’s also an honorary lecturer at the Australian National University. He has wide-ranging interests in Australian social history, histories of LGBTQI people and communities, and critical museology. Craig believes in the role of arts and culture to strengthen communities, to combat social exclusion and to support a healthy and active democracy. He’s the lead coordinating curator of Discovering Ancient Egypt. Welcome both of you. That’s all the formalities out of the way, we’ll get cracking right this very minute.

Now, Daniel, you were born in Cairo, but you moved to Amsterdam as a one-year-old, as a baby. How did you first get into Egyptologist fashion and interests?

DANIEL SOLIMAN: Well, it has much to do with the fact that as you mentioned, I was born in Egypt. I have an Egyptian father and a Dutch mother. And growing up in Holland, I would oftentimes go to Egypt to visit relatives. As a child I was in Cairo from time to time and also went to places like the Pyramids of Giza to the fantastic Egyptian museum in Cairo. And I was very, very fascinated by the ancient Egyptian antiquities there. And well, besides that, of course, my mother had from her time in Egypt also collected all sorts of souvenirs which were standing around the house from Egypt. So that also inspired me a little bit. And then I just continued to find more about ancient Egypt, reading books, trying to do every paper in school on ancient Egypt, and eventually, studying Egyptology at the University of Leiden. And yeah, and then going on to do a career in Egyptology.

EMMA MACDONALD: And what did you specialise in?

DANIEL SOLIMAN: At the moment I need to be a bit of a specialist in everything, which means that I’m not really a specialist, I just know a little bit about a lot of things. But doing a PhD in Egyptology means that you very much specialise in something, and I did research on a community of necropolis workmen, the very people who constructed and decorated the tombs of the Valley of the Kings, and who lived in a community, in a small village called Deir el-Medina. And so I focused on their work, their lives and the way in which they used script.

EMMA MACDONALD: Okay, now why is it do you think that people seem to be quite obsessed, and I’m sure these people that have come on a Saturday afternoon, there is a just a general real concrete interest across most ordinary people for what ancient Egypt has told us. Why is that?

DANIEL SOLIMAN: Yeah, that’s a huge question people are asking themselves that question or writing books about it or doing research about that. That is a big question to unpack. I think I can mention a few things that I think have to do with it. I suppose first and foremost, it’s the incredible archaeology of ancient Egypt. So as we all know, Egypt is a very hot and arid country which is perfect for archaeology. It means that many things are pretty well preserved, things from thousands of years old. So when you then discover them, when you excavate them and you find them, they are so well preserved that you get this very immediate, this very close connection to the people from a long time ago.

I think it’s also the fact that we have continued to tell ourselves stories about ancient Egypt already for ages. For example, Greek historians like Herodotus coming to Egypt to study that culture, to investigate that culture. For example, the fact that ancient Egypt features in the books of the Bible and the Quran. From there on, we continue to make art about Egypt, paintings that depict, for example, the Holy Family in Egypt. We have Shakespeare writing about Cleopatra and Antony, right? So, and we do this to this day through music, through film, through all sorts of arts. And I think in that way ancient Egypt becomes part of our collective memory and we are fascinated by this culture.

EMMA MACDONALD: Because you also see the influence of ancient Egypt in pop culture, what are some things that we might not have realised are actually influences?

DANIEL SOLIMAN: I think most of the influences are pretty obvious. So it’s there in songs like Walk Like an Egyptian. It’s there in movies like the famous film about Cleopatra’s life, depicted by Elizabeth Taylor, for example. But there’s so much more, and there is video games that talk about ancient Egypt, and there are songs like, what’s an example? Miles Davis, for example, he was influenced by ancient Egypt.

EMMA MACDONALD: I did not know that. Now we’re going to get on to Craig. You are not an Egyptologist, let’s make that clear. But you do know a lot and you’ve been instrumental in getting this amazing exhibition up. What was your first introduction to Egyptian culture as a child and why are you also interested in it?

CRAIG MIDDLETON: That’s a good question. So from my bio, my expertise lies in histories from the 1980s onwards, so I’m on the other end of the spectrum here. But it’s been a joy to be able to engage in this space, of course. And my encounters with Egypt as a young boy growing up in suburban South Australia were much different to Daniel’s, in that I was likely influenced by the pop culture, by the movies of the 1990s.

EMMA MACDONALD: By the Bangles’ song.

CRAIG MIDDLETON: By the Bangles’ song, which is a fantastic song. But also I was born in the late 1980s. Most of my young childhood was in the 1990s and I remember this thing that me and my mother used to do, and we used to go to the news agent and buy those magazines that you would always get a gift with. And so one of these was this series of books which still sit on my mother’s bookshelf at home. They were gold, so they were beautiful to me as a young kid. And they were each dedicated to a particular ancient culture. So there was one on Greece, there was one on Rome and there was one on Egypt. I remember, sitting as a probably nine- or ten-year-old, looking through these books and being fascinated by what I was seeing, probably because it was so different to my lived reality in a suburban context.

Then, as I get older, ancient Egypt, as we all know, has a rightful place on the Australian curriculum. You start engaging with this civilisation, this society and culture from about year 6 or 7, depending on what state you’re from. And being privileged to live in Adelaide most of my life, that museum was a colonial museum that was set up in the mid-1800s and was documented to supposedly rival the British Museum. Of course, it may never have achieved that, but it’s still a great museum. But every good museum in the 18th century had an Egyptian wing. And if you’ve ever visited this museum or you go, it’s still there. It has not been touched, probably because of the problems associated with Egyptian antiquities. But it is paper labels which are still type-written, fading away. And I would always visit that space because, and it’s a bit kitsch, I would say, how they’ve painted the walls, but I always visit that space because it just seemed like a whole world away from where I was.

And when I reflect on these stories now, I think, given the kind of work that I do in my other non-Egyptian world, I’ve always been fascinated by difference in a really good way. Thinking about my lived experiences and the experiences of other people, other times, other communities and cultures.

EMMA MACDONALD: Now Daniel, as you have explained, a lot of precious Egyptian antiquities have been preserved and we have the great joy of seeing them. How much do you think has yet to be discovered?

DANIEL SOLIMAN: Impossible to say, but it’s clear that discoveries are done every year in archaeology. Asking about how much still there is to discover is a bit like asking well, how much is there still to advance in medical science? There is loads still to discover. And even with the material that we already know exists, there’s still lots of strides that can be made in understanding that material.

But there’s something I can say, I can in general say, that Egypt archaeology has focused predominantly on the excavation of temples and tombs, and we know far less about cities and villages. There is reasons for that, because many of those places have probably disappeared under contemporary cities and villages, but there are areas in Egypt where we probably will be able to find more of that type of archaeology. So that’s incredibly interesting, right? Because that would tell us so much more about how people lived.

EMMA MACDONALD: And the scientific and technological advances allow you to get so much more information. For instance, the mummified remains. Tell us about what we can now see through the bandages. We can see exactly what’s what.

DANIEL SOLIMAN: Yes, we’ve been able to look through the bandages of mummified people already since the days of X-ray technology. And in fact, when that was first developed, pretty soon they were also starting to look at Egyptian bodies. We can do that still to this day. We also use other technologies like CT scanning and you probably know that technology from the hospital. The bodies that have travelled to Canberra as part of this exhibition, have been studied using exactly that same technology. So we travelled with the bodies to a hospital in Amsterdam where, this was after visiting hours, right, so this was basically in the spare time of the doctors, right.

EMMA MACDONALD: Can you even imagine a trolley going through the corridors and the CT scanners going, hmmm?


DANIEL SOLIMAN: No, of course. We didn’t want to take any time away from real living patients. So we did this in the spare time of the doctors and the experts there, and we CT scanned the bodies. This allows us to study their bodies, but eventually mostly their lives in a way that we don’t have to disrupt them, disrupt the bandages. And so we get an idea of their physicality. We can study how old they have been. We can study their gender, or rather the sex. And we can see maybe what the cause of death may have been.

EMMA MACDONALD: That’s fascinating. How were people dying back then?

DANIEL SOLIMAN: All sorts of things, and sometimes it’s difficult to say, but it’s age, it’s sometimes heart disease, it’s arthritis – that probably wasn’t the cause of death – but we can see these conditions in the body sometimes.

EMMA MACDONALD: It is truly fascinating. Can I just get a show of hands, who’s actually been through the exhibition? Did anyone go to the backroom and see the scans of the mummified [people]? Did it blow your mind? Yeah, it is amazing. Craig, how did the National Museum get to actually host this exhibition? Because I know that there’s other Egyptian exhibitions that are in Sydney and one coming to Melbourne. It’s obviously very popular.

CRAIG MIDDLETON: Absolutely, I think, very popular. And you’re right, there are other shows and I think, it kind of, that simple fact that there are so many shows, leans into something that this show attempts to unpack, which is this ongoing, seemingly universal fascination – obsession, if you will – with this society. The National Museum has as a remit not only to share great Australian stories and to build a collection that represents this nation, but also to bring the world’s cultures to Australian shores.

There’s lots of things that we kind of look at when we’re looking to bring exhibitions in. It’s not just about the simple topic, ancient Egypt, you could pull in probably 20 plus exhibitions with that same topic right now, being sold. But there was something, maybe unlike these other two exhibitions, the one that’s currently on in Sydney, and the one that will be on in Victoria next year, are focused on Pharaohs and rulers. I suppose the material culture of the elite.

Something that we’re really proud to do here is share stories of everyday life, and so that is where this particular exhibition really sort of spoke to us and our sort of values and vision about, unpacking what is little known about this culture, at least in the general sense, not by experts like my colleague here, that we can know about the boy King Tutankhamun, but Tutankhamun wouldn’t have a position of power without other people. Of which his community was built around these people who lived lives like us. Who were working, loving, just getting by. And so this exhibition works to unpack some of those stories in a really nice way.

EMMA MACDONALD: Which is a perfect moment to go to Daniel for. We’ve asked both guests to give us their top three picks. So if you’ve been through, you’re going to need to go back and have a look at what you’re about to hear, and if you haven’t been through, then you look out for these at the start. So Daniel, let’s start with one of your picks.

DANIEL SOLIMAN: Yeah, this is an incredibly hard question. There’s so many exciting pieces. Well, one piece that I picked indeed fits in perfectly with what Craig said. It’s a game board from an ancient Egyptian tomb. It’s perhaps an unassuming object, right? It’s a simple wooden box, but I love it because you can still see that this, there were these hieroglyphs on the specific fields of the board game with signs that show us how this board game was played. It was a game called Senet. It used to be played by two players at the same time and it just shows us how much the ancient Egyptians in a sense were like us.

EMMA MACDONALD: And you explained it’s a little bit like an ancient equivalent of snakes and ladders.

DANIEL SOLIMAN: That’s right. Yes. So you try to reach the end of the board before the other player and there would be little game pieces moving along the fields of the board game. Yeah, it’s just a beautiful reminder of how people were just trying to have fun also in daily life. At the same time, we know it’s a piece from a tomb and it has a double symbolic meaning because the word Senet means passage, in the sense of passing through the fields to reach the end of the game. But it’s also symbolically referring to the passage from the world of the living to the afterlife.

EMMA MACDONALD: And it’s quite beautiful on its own. It’s sort of familiar too, a little bit like a chess board, it’s geometric. What is your next pick?

DANIEL SOLIMAN: Well another object that I want to highlight that I hope people go and see is a monumental stela. Stela is sort of a limestone slab. It has a roof, it’s sort of a domed upper part and it is inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphs and all sorts of depictions. It’s a big, monumental stone that would have stood at the publicly accessible part of the tomb, right. Egyptian tombs for rich people usually had an accessible part where people would come to commemorate the deceased. And then a subterranean part where the deceased would be buried. Which was inaccessible. But in this accessible part you would have this stela. With depictions of the deceased and their family.

What is so special about this one is well, first, it’s size. It’s a pretty big boy and the colours are incredibly well preserved on this particular stela. Which is a good reminder, I think, to all of us, also visiting the exhibition, whenever you see an object made from stone, especially limestone, that would have originally had all of these vivid, beautiful colours and oftentimes they’re lost. But on this piece they’re still very well preserved. So that’s a beautiful thing about this. The other thing is that it is commemorating in particular two people, a man called Huy and his wife Mutnofret, and so they are depicted as sort of the main characters on the Stela.

But it’s not just them who are commemorated. Also, both the parents of the men and of the woman are commemorated and the children are commemorated. This allows us really to reconstruct their family trees. And it’s also again a beautiful reminder of what life must have been in ancient Egypt and them having been depicted together right. Different generations, some generations perhaps already deceased at the time this was being made, illustrates how the ancient Egyptians believe that even after death, you wouldn’t really be gone. You would still be present in the here and now together with your family members. And that’s beautifully monumentalised, captured, on that stela.

EMMA MACDONALD: Yeah, it’s kind of like airbrushing your deceased relatives into a modern photo in a way, not that anyone does that anymore. But it is incredibly colourful, and we were talking about how a lot of museum exhibitions, they tend to have a muted kind of sepia tone, whereas some of the things that you see in this one are vividly colourful. Which is amazing. And what’s your third pick?

DANIEL SOLIMAN: Well, my third pick would be a papyrus document. It’s a private letter and I like that object because, first it’s made of papyrus, which is a fantastic technology that the ancient Egyptians developed. It’s basically a precursor to our paper, and our word ‘paper’ also is derived from the word papyrus. Such a durable material, and it’s also so important for us nowadays to study ancient Egypt, right? Because on this medium, so many texts from ancient Egypt are preserved. It’s a letter in stripes in one of the Egyptian scripts. We all know the hieroglyphs, but the hieroglyphs are mostly used for very monumental inscriptions. Whereas this script is called hieratic and it’s more of a cursive script, right, used for more everyday things, at least during this period when this letter was made.

EMMA MACDONALD: And Daniel can actually read it as well, which was just bizarre. He bent over and he started reading it, and Craig and I were like having a moment, weren’t we?

CRAIG MIDDLETON: It was unbelievable.

EMMA MACDONALD: Very clever. Sorry to interrupt. Keep going. What was the contents of the letter?

DANIEL SOLIMAN: It’s a letter between two people who lived, around, what was it, 1200 BC, and they are sending each other greetings. It’s again a fantastic insight into life in ancient times. And as you do nowadays, you ask after each other, you wish each other well. These are not just any people. They do belong to a social elite at the time. They’re probably people around, sort of the circle of an important man connected to one of the biggest temples at the time, a temple of the god Ptah in the city of Memphis, very close to contemporary Cairo. And they had a working relationship. They were colleagues, probably, of each other, and they, well, one is sending greetings to the other, asking about their health.

EMMA MACDONALD: It’s interesting that the theme of the objects that you’ve chosen is very much based on ordinary life, board games, having fun, family and connection to community and asking about someone’s welfare, which is what we do today. So some things haven’t changed. Craig, let’s delve into your top three.

CRAIG MIDDLETON: So I won’t be as compelling in the detail as Daniel is, but I guess when I, come to, we will all come to, this exhibition and find things that speak to us in different ways. And so a lot of the things that I’ve come to be enamoured by often do relate to that everyday aspect, but maybe in a different kind of way. So the first one I want to talk about is a fragment, a stone fragment which is an oil lamp. So the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden uncovered, or excavated 30 residential dwellings, so people’s homes, in a place called Shokan. Just looking at Daniel to get the affirmation of my knowledge.

EMMA MACDONALD: And pronunciation.


CRAIG MIDDLETON: And the terrible pronunciation of the museum’s name. But this lamp fragment, it’s sort of broken at the top. It’s got this really sort of simple almost line drawing, carving, of a man sitting down fishing. And I think there’s something to say here about the relationship with water in a really dry and inhospitable environment.

But there’s also a little hole in the centre where you would have poured the oil or the liquid that you would have been burning, and the hole at the bottom where a wick would have stood. And at the bottom of where that wick stood, is all this black residue, which is a residue of soot. So for me, when I encounter an object like that I can really get a sense and a feeling of someone having just used this in their homes thousands of years ago and it really speaks to me about human mortality almost.

EMMA MACDONALD: And speaking of soot, there is one particular element of the exhibition that I find incredible. You can actually go and smell the smoke from Egypt. Ancient Egypt. You can also smell the fishy garbage and some of the scents. It’s sort of, look for a round table and it will tell you, and you can move the covers apart and take in, inhale what it was like. Which I just think is such a clever, clever thing to do. So it sort of brings you there. So you can see the soot and you can smell it.

CRAIG MIDDLETON: The smell is interesting because you know more than just being playful, they’re informed by archaeological research and Egyptological research, which is kind of amazing. This one scholar has been focusing on the scents of tombs and the olfactory, it’s kind of amazing. So it was really fun to do that bit of work.

EMMA MACDONALD: Yeah. So what’s your second [artefact]?

CRAIG MIDDLETON: So the other things that I’m interested in this show is the sort of unpacking of practices that happened much later than this defined period of ancient Egypt. So there’s a piece of jewellery in that beautiful long case full of jewellery and it’s a necklace. I’d say it was mostly blue in colour in terms of the beads, and then hanging off this necklace are various amulets that feature quite iconic Egyptian motifs like the scarab beetle, like the Eye of Horus and some other amulets.

And what interests me most about this is that based on the research that the museum’s done, you can assume that this was probably not strung together, in the way that it’s strung together now, in this defined period of ancient Egypt. But during the 17th and 18th century people would have been finding these or purchasing these beads and amulets and stringing necklaces together and selling them on the antiquities market as such. And so for me it’s good to uncover that, right, just from a sort of practice perspective. But it also says something about this fascination. You know, that 1700s, 1800s, that continues through to today and how much of a prolific influence ancient Egypt has had.

EMMA MACDONALD: How does it make you both feel, though, knowing that some of these priceless objects have been bought, sold, traded and no doubt reside in many private collections that we don’t even know about. Is there a bit of an uncomfortable feeling?

DANIEL SOLIMAN: Yeah, it’s well, if you ask me how I feel about that, I feel conflicted about that. It’s a practice that is age old, right? As Craig mentioned the selling of Egyptian antiquities, it has an incredibly long tradition that goes back to indeed, I think as early as the 16th century. Can you imagine? And many different people were involved in that. Egyptians were involved in that. Mostly Europeans have been involved in that, many other parties.

And well, we were speaking earlier about where does this fascination for ancient Egypt come from? One other aspect is the fact that so much of [the] ancient Egyptians’ cultural heritage is now dispersed throughout the world. As you mentioned, you were fascinated by ancient Egyptian objects that you saw growing up in a museum. So the fact that this trade existed is also why we’re so incredibly interested in it.

But at the same time it also meant that, well, contemporary Egyptians sometimes have a feeling of loss regarding this cultural heritage. Of course, there’s still an incredible amount of antiquity still in Egypt to this day, and incredible museums in Egypt with antiquities. But there are things, incredible objects and lots of cultural heritage that they cannot easily access or things that have moved out of the country through, well, ways that nowadays with our current eyes we think are not so ethical. So it’s a conflicted thing for me.

EMMA MACDONALD: Yes, absolutely. Craig, sorry to interrupt. You haven’t got to your third pick.

CRAIG MIDDLETON: Yes. Just to say something about this movement of material culture that, while we can look back and see the sketchiness of how some of this has happened, we can’t look away from the art market right now and think that actually cultural heritage in the form of visual arts is still moving around.

EMMA MACDONALD: I was not going to get into that, Craig.

CRAIG MIDDLETON: But what I’m saying, is not to go political or anything, but just to say that this is still happening and museums and other cultural institutions are working hard to unpack what’s happened in the past. And so while we can feel conflicted about it, we also have a responsibility to engage in what’s happening, right now.

EMMA MACDONALD: To do better.

CRAIG MIDDLETON: But my third object is a coffin. I couldn’t go past the coffins. I think everybody’s fascinated by these objects, which are some of the most important objects in the funerary practices of the ancient Egyptians, because they did protect in a way and transform, as I’ve learned, the physical body. But there’s one in there that I’ve been sort of fascinated by since we received the object list of the show a few years ago. And that’s the coffin of the priest Panesy. It’s the black coffin.

And I’m particularly fascinated by Panesy’s face, which is a separate piece that would have been produced and then inlaid on the coffin. And it’s created with this beautiful dark timber and you can still see the wood grain in this timber, it wasn’t painted, unlike lots of the other coffins in the room. And timber would have been a really expensive material to import into Egypt. And the eyes and the eyebrows of this piece were also inlaid and probably made of ebony and the white of the eyes, of ivory or bone. Also really expensive and prized material.

And it says something about how people wanted to be projected in these pieces of equipment, but also that coffins like these, did belong to the wealthy. Not everybody could afford to commission coffins, which was a really expensive trade.

EMMA MACDONALD: And there’s a beautiful painting within the base of the coffin of the goddess, is it Nut? Yeah, who’s sort of embracing the body, which is really quite beautiful when you see it.

CRAIG MIDDLETON: There’s a lot of care and love and respect.

EMMA MACDONALD: And symbolism.

CRAIG MIDDLETON: That you can feel when you stand in front of these larger-than-life objects and so I think that these are the kinds of things that that take me when I’m in front of historical artefacts.

EMMA MACDONALD: Now we’re going to jump into a thought experiment. Daniel, if I were to ask you, what would a modern world be without the ancient Egyptians, given that they discovered or invented mass, a 365 day a year calendar, irrigation, construction, agriculture and even, really, the precursors to medicine? Would we, I mean we owe them a debt, don’t we? They were a clever, clever bunch.

DANIEL SOLIMAN: I think it’s safe to say yes, this is a very interesting thought experiment as you say, right. I find hypotheticals like that difficult sometimes, but let’s try [it]. Well one thing I can say, to address this, is that yes, when you think about the mathematics, medicine and things like astrology, the calendar, that we ‘plural’ use in most parts of the Western world, I think, globally to a great extent.

Some things you can definitely trace back to ancient Egypt, but I can immediately say it’s not just ancient Egypt. Some of these things also come from places like Mesopotamia, India, Persia. So there are different ideas that sometimes may have developed independently, sometimes in tandem with each other. There must have been lots of cultural influence going back and forth, ending up in places like Greece and through Greece, also in Rome and in the Western world.

For example, let’s pick someone like Pythagoras who lives in the 6th century BC, is famous for many things, including the theorem of Pythagoras, right, a2 + b2 = c2. So we have evidence from ancient Egypt written on papyri that similar ideas and similar principles already existed, I think, a good 1,000 maybe 1,500 years before Pythagoras, probably also in other places, but including in ancient Egypt. Now we know that Pythagoras, he lived in a time when in fact many Greeks were coming to Egypt. This is a time of increased interaction in the eastern Mediterranean region, many Greeks worked in Egypt as missionaries. Did I pronounce that well? Yeah. Working at the court of the King, and there are descriptions by later Greek historians who say that Pythagoras was in Egypt to study. So it could be that he got the idea from Egypt.

EMMA MACDONALD: I’d say so, don’t you think?


CRAIG MIDDLETON: You heard it here first.

DANIEL SOLIMAN: Right, right. There’s loads of other things, indeed a calendar of 365 days, well, in ancient Egypt, in ancient Mesopotamia similar calendars existed. Something that I think not many people will realise is that the letters that we use in the Latin script, right, when we write English, the letters that we use, they ultimately derive from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

So for example, our letter M, it comes from the hieroglyph, which is the water ripple. You know, the zigzag line it comes from that hieroglyph. If you look at our letter A, if you would turn that upside down, you have the head of an ox with the horns sticking out. These are all characters that derived from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic script. They were adopted by other people speaking other languages to develop alphabets because the ancient Egyptians didn’t have an alphabet, they had hieroglyphic script, which consists of hundreds and hundreds of hieroglyphs.

But other people speaking other languages tried to make an alphabet, which is a simpler way to write in a sense. You use a very limited amount of characters like we do in English. And through different cultures, including the Phoenicians, including the Greeks, eventually, this is the script that we started to use. So, yeah, I think without the ancient Egyptians, we wouldn’t have the letters we use nowadays.

EMMA MACDONALD: It is truly fascinating. To jump to something completely different, let’s talk about Napoleon. He played a big role in the preservation and understanding of how precious ancient Egypt was.

DANIEL SOLIMAN: Yes, lots of things start with Napoleon in Egypt. So Napoleon, I think it was in 1798 started a military campaign to conquer Egypt as part of a big battle to control the Mediterranean Sea, so fighting against first the Ottomans, who were then ruling over Egypt and also the British. And so this is an event that stands at the basis also of the foundation of what we call now Egyptology. The academic discipline of systematically studying ancient Egypt.

Because Napoleon not just brought an army during this, what is actually a horrible, violent conflict between two cultures, he also brought with him scholars to well to study the country. Not just because he liked science – that certainly was a part of it – it was also simply to be able to control the country, to understand the nature, the routes, the resources you could get from Egypt. Also to start to think about creating the Suez Canal, etcetera, etcetera, but also to study culture – contemporary Egyptian culture and ancient Egyptian culture.

And so during this time, there are a number of scholars who go through Egypt to systematically describe everything they see, to draw up reports, to study monuments. They wrote everything down. They created huge volumes of publications, a publication that would be published years later called The Description of Egypt and it recorded monuments that were visible in the landscape then, but have since disappeared. So in that sense it’s an incredibly important record of what was once there. And part of that story of discovering Egypt is told also in the exhibition.

Another thing that happened during that time is, of course, the discovery of the monument that is known as the Stone of Rosetta, that I think most people will have heard of. It was found, reused in an Arab fortress, basically in the masonry of the fortress. And it is a famous monument because it’s inscribed in three different scripts – two Egyptian scripts and one ancient Greek script. And the ancient Greek script, of course, was still a known language. People could read that, people could understand that. And using that, later, a number of scholars started to puzzle with the ancient Egyptian script to try to understand hieroglyphic scripts and hieratic script. So this coincides with Napoleon’s campaign and that of course is really laying the basis for the study of Egypt through Western eyes predominantly.

EMMA MACDONALD: Now, how did your own institution manage to amass such a significant collection? And how often is it that you let it travel to the other side of the world? And are there any pieces that haven’t really been seen by the public?

DANIEL SOLIMAN: There are several pieces that are very rarely seen by the public. I think that is true for most museum collections. We have such large collections that you cannot put them on display. They are kept in the storerooms. We do try to make them accessible as possible by recording them, by photographing them and making them accessible online through the collection database. There’s also pieces that are very difficult to travel abroad for travelling exhibitions, but the museum is committed to sharing as much as it can the collection with well, first and foremost people in the Netherlands, but broader than that also people elsewhere.

So we do have travelling exhibitions on occasion and in fact the show that’s visible here in different forms, completely different forms, I can add, because this show was really made for this audience, was also in Japan and Korea earlier. So yeah, on occasion we travel highlights from the collection.

To come back to your first question, the National Museum of Antiquities in the Netherlands was founded in 1808, so quite a long time ago. And at the time, there was already a small collection of Egyptian antiquities in the Netherlands already since the 17th century. And so you can imagine how old some of that material is. But the museum wanted to create a large, impressive collection. One basically to rival those of the British Museum, of the Berlin Museum, of the Louvre in Paris. So this is the time of imperialism where these kingdoms want to compete with each other, also in terms of knowledge. And the museum, tried to increase, or tried to build up rather, a collection, by acquiring ancient Egyptian antiquities in the antiquities trade as we’ve already briefly mentioned.

So at the time, at the beginning of the 19th century, you still have an Egypt that is ruled by the Ottomans because eventually the French were kicked out. They were defeated by the British and the Ottomans. And so after that period we have essentially a sort of an independently ruled Egypt, ruled by Ottoman rulers, most famously Muhammad Ali, Pasha. And during that time he wants to modernise Egypt, to have it compete with Europe, and so he invites lots of Europeans to come to Egypt to build up that country.

And so with that representation of European powers, people from Europe become interested in ancient Egypt, start to collect antiquities, get the permission, in fact, from the Ottoman government of Egypt, to start looking for things – I won’t say excavate, because they didn’t really use technologies that we now use in archaeology but they start to look for antiquities. They build up their own private collections and they sell them off on auctions for example. And so the bulk of the collection of the National Museum of Antiquities in terms of the Egyptian collection was acquired around that time between 1826 and 1828. Large private collections of Europeans who had been in Egypt were bought on auctions and from there the museum continued to still buy objects in the antiquities trade, which flourished until relatively recently.

But another way to acquire objects is through excavation. In parts of the 20th century, it was also a common practice to divide up the finds of an excavation between the excavating foreign party and the Egyptian Government. So this was something that the Egyptian Government had put in place, a system that they had put in place. The museum only started excavating in Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s and well, as part of those excavations, the Egyptian Government at that time, an independent Egyptian Government, donated parts of the finds to the Netherlands, including, this is a bit of a different story, but including a famous temple that was dismantled in Egypt, is now rebuilt in Leiden, and a scan of the facade of that very temple is included in the exhibition.

EMMA MACDONALD: On the other hand, Craig, you are charged with [the] responsibility of receiving these incredibly precious goods. How many sleepless nights have you had, and also just on a really practical note, what measures have been put in place to protect everything? How critical is the light and the air and the alarms and the security?

CRAIG MIDDLETON: It’s all pretty critical.

EMMA MACDONALD: Not that we want to stress you too much today.

CRAIG MIDDLETON: No, I just said to my colleague this morning that I woke up at 10 am because it was the first morning I’ve had off in months and I’m usually a 7.30 starter. So it was obvious I needed a rest now that it’s all in place. This, I don’t know about how you feel when you get off a 13-hour flight from Australia to the UK, for example, but I feel pretty average. So you can imagine moving antiquities that are up to 5,000 years old on cargo planes and what that must feel like the moment you’re standing in front of the crate and the box opens and you’re hoping like, oh my god, I hope nothing’s gone wrong.

Of course museums are well practised in this, and so we have full teams that are not only dedicated to the conservation of historic material, but also people whose full-time jobs it is to move objects around. And that sounds really simple, but it’s super complicated. And so, we are two [people] of what is a huge workforce behind putting these shows on and there are people who are making sure that their love and care and respect goes into looking after these objects too. We’ve been talking about why this material is so well preserved as well, and it’s because of those unique conditions of Egypt of being hot, dry and low humidity. The Netherlands is completely different to that climate, we, while we can be hot and dry, we also have a lot of [humidity].

EMMA MACDONALD: We’re by a lake. Everyone needs to shut the windows.

CRAIG MIDDLETON: Yeah. Yeah, right. If you just go three hours up the road to Sydney, you’ve got a lot of humidity that rolls in in the afternoon. We’ve got to manage air temperatures and we do that in a whole range of ways. Those glass cases are locked tight to make sure that those conditions are good. And so everything you see on open display is of course really stable. So you see most of the objects on open display made from stone or metal – not the ones in this show, but just generally – so it’s nice that it’s all here and in its rightful place, and you’ll be hearing the security alarms go off when anyone gets too close.

EMMA MACDONALD: Absolutely. Now the exhibition also includes mummified human remains. Let’s discuss some of the cultural sensitivities around that. Daniel, firstly tell us a little bit about mummification. Why was it so important? Why did the Egyptians do it, and whose mummified remains have been included in this exhibition?

DANIEL SOLIMAN: Yes, Craig already touched upon it a bit when he discussed the coffin that he picked. The ancient Egyptians, I’m going to generalise a little bit, but let’s just say in general, the ancient Egyptians believed that it was important for the deceased in order to reach the afterlife, that the body was preserved. So that’s one immediate reason why the ancient Egyptians would mummify their dead, right. It is a process that dehydrates, that takes out the fluids of the body after death, by placing the body in a bath of salts and natron. Then oils are used. You start sort of a chemical process to dry out the body. You remove the organs, you keep them separately, but you remove the organs so the body doesn’t start to decompose. You wrap it in fine linen. And so the body is preserved and that was important for the ancient Egyptians.

One reason why that is important is that the ancient Egyptians believed that even though the deceased would no longer be alive, would be in a different world, right, it would be with the gods, it could still travel to the world of the living. A manifestation of the deceased could travel from the tomb to the world of the living during the day, and that could only happen as long as the body was preserved. So during the day it would be with the living, interacting perhaps with the living. But when the sun sets, it would have to return to the body again to be reunited with the body. So therefore, the body has to be preserved.

Now the second important reason for mummification has to do with transformation. The ancient Egyptians believed that a person that would die would continue to live in the afterlife, but there it would become more than just a mortal, it would be a being living with the gods, having special powers, having magical powers, almost becoming a bit like a god having certain powers like gods. And in order to make that transformation happen, the body was mummified. That mummification process is a part of that transformation.

The oils that the Egyptians used to wrap the body of the deceased would include ingredients that were also used to make incense for example, to offer to gods in temples. The linen used is not just any type of material. Linen itself has a specific power as a material. It’s also the fabric that the ancient Egyptians would wrap divine temple statues into. So the mummification is an important part in the transformation of the deceased from a mortal into a being, a shining being that exists among the gods.

EMMA MACDONALD: And who is here? Who is here in the museum?

DANIEL SOLIMAN: We have the bodies of five Egyptians, two of them, we don’t know exactly who they are because of the find circumstances and the collection circumstances they have come into our collection without a name and then we have two women and one man. One woman, called Sensaos and one woman called Ta(net)kharu, and one man called Harerem.

EMMA MACDONALD: Now, Craig, what did the Museum do to prepare for the arrival of these mummified remains? Can you take us through it.

CRAIG MIDDLETON: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve just learned how to say these people’s names in much more [correct pronunciation].

EMMA MACDONALD: But can you repeat it?

CRAIG MIDDLETON: No, but it’s beautiful hearing Daniel say these people’s names. And I think, I suppose something that we were reflecting on at the National Museum of Australia when we were bringing this show here was that Hollywood, films, literature, art, has over time, almost dehumanised the mummified person in a way that we are quite comfortable going into these spaces. But these are people, they’re people who lived thousands of years ago and so we really wanted to respect that and respect their lives, present to our audiences as much information we knew about them and their lives, which of course is never as much as you’d hope. And so for those of you who have been in the exhibition, you’ll realise that these bodies are resting in a separate part of the exhibition. You can’t see them unless you decide to actively walk through that threshold. And there’s nothing else in that space other than some videos that directly relate to them and their experiences. And that was really about respecting them, not objectifying them as much as we can in a context of an exhibition.

But something else we’ve done, of course, in Australia, we have to recognise that we live in a context where there are very serious protocols related to First Nations people and communities. And those differ across the whole continent, of course. And so through this process, not only consulting with Egyptian Australians on how we approach the display of these people but also with First Nations communities, so we had senior Ngambri man Paul Girrawah House welcome these people with a smoking ceremony and what is called a cleansing ceremony in his community when they arrived on Ngambri land. We also invited the Ambassador of the Arab Republic of Egypt, who, after the smoking ceremony, spoke to the ancestors in Arabic and welcomed them to Canberra, which was really lovely. And then we offered that same opportunity to Ngunnawal and Ngunawal communities when the people arrived at the Museum, which is on Ngunnawal land. And there were two ceremonies that took place. One was a smoking ceremony which was performed by the men and one was a water ceremony which was performed by the women, very specific cultural protocols. And once these ancestors were put in place in the exhibition, there was a protection ceremony and that was performed by Ngunnawal women. And that was to protect us as we encounter these people and the staff and any kind of energies that may come from these bodies.

EMMA MACDONALD: Was it special to be part of that? Because I find that description quite touching, really quite emotional.

CRAIG MIDDLETON: It was moving. There was a lot of care taken and a lot of respect that’s embedded within these practices. And it was a privilege to be a small part of that. Absolutely.

EMMA MACDONALD: Now I’m conscious that we are going to hand over to audience members and I hope you’ve all got your thinking caps on and you can ask absolutely anything. But before we do that, I wanted to say Craig, how do you conceptualise a big exhibition where you’re going to get tens of thousands of people through? How do you make it work and what were you hoping to achieve?

CRAIG MIDDLETON: That’s a pretty big question, and actually the beauty of an exhibition like this is that you’re working with the people whose collection these objects come from. So in many ways we as the coordinating curator, as the coordinating institution, you become the champion for your lending institution, ensuring that the perspectives and the ideas and the stories that are being communicated are absolutely in keeping with how they’re understood in their home country.

Something that I think is really important for this exhibition and why we wanted to present it in the first place, is this idea of better understanding the lived experiences of ancient Egyptians, and so understanding that belief system. If you really think about it, when you’re moving through that space, you will enter the Temple of Taffeh, which is acknowledging the institution which it came from, and you start with objects of everyday life. While maybe found in tombs, they represent something of play, of music, of household objects, there’s a beautiful woven basket which is absolutely remarkably preserved. And it would have held toiletries or linens in an everyday context.

And so you’re moving through this and then halfway through the gallery, you start encountering the papyrus scrolls of the Book of the Dead. And the stone stelae that have been produced, and so people begin preparing for their afterlife. And then you move through a threshold where the coffins, the stories of mummification and the mummified people rest. And so we’re literally taking you through this journey, this kind of belief system. So when it comes to an Australian context, we don’t know as much about ancient Egypt as Egyptian people in modern Egypt do, so we have to unpack some of that along the way. So it’s about offering you little glimpses of what you need to know to arrive at your next destination along the way.

EMMA MACDONALD: Absolutely. Now, how are we going to do this? We’ve got a microphone. Does anyone want to raise their hands and ask a question?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you. That was amazing, as is the exhibition. I had a question about the fragrances or the smells. I assume they’re synthetically constructed?

CRAIG MIDDLETON: Yeah, there is this unbelievable company in the UK that produces hundreds and hundreds of smells for this exact purpose, for museums, for libraries, for interactive engagements. Me and my colleague ordered 20 different fragrances and we’re running around the office saying, ‘What does this smell like to you?’ But yeah, they are synthetically made. And they’re, while you can only make assumptions, it’s all interpretation, right. There’s a lot of research that goes into trying to unpack the smells of ancient Egypt, but it’s all based on, probably material evidence rather than olfactory evidence.

EMMA MACDONALD: Now nobody needs to stress because I’ve got a million more questions, but we’ll keep going. Thank you.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: With, presumably the whole of Egypt would have wanted life everlasting, but for the people who couldn’t afford mummification, and presumably a lot of the farmers would not have been able to. Was there sort of a poor man’s equivalent?

EMMA MACDONALD: Great question.

DANIEL SOLIMAN: Yeah, great question. Yes absolutely there would be all sorts of different ways to bury people. And indeed, when we talk about mummification, this is a practice that we see mostly by those who could afford it, right. So essentially the one per cent of Egypt. And even within forms of mummification, we can see there’s forms that are very elaborate and others that are less so. So that probably also has to do with the amount of resources that people would have had to spend on burial.

People who wouldn’t be able to have themselves mummified would probably be buried in much simpler tombs, graves, in the desert, a dry place where forms of natural mummification also take place. In addition to that, we see that people would just do whatever they could to obtain the ideals of mummification. So some people would have been wrapped in very simple coffins, sorry, buried in simple coffins and wrapped in perhaps a single sheet of linen, a shroud. Some people would have simply been placed in a coffin without any wrappings. Some people wouldn’t even have had a coffin. So, there’s different forms. It depends a little bit on the social context, also a little bit on the time frame that we’re talking about.

EMMA MACDONALD: But did they still get to the afterlife?

DANIEL SOLIMAN: Well, that’s a good question. Another thing that I forgot to mention is that perhaps people didn’t have any linen wrappings or shrouds, but oftentimes they would have at least a minimum of amulets, right. And these would have magical powers that, at least in the minds of the Egyptians, would also help them get to the afterlife. So I’m pretty sure that the average Egyptian would definitely believe that, even without mummification in the form that we know it from museum collections, etcetera, they would still reach an afterlife.

EMMA MACDONALD: Phew! That’s a relief. Who’s next?


AUDIENCE MEMBER: Most people know about the Elgin Marbles. Are there any disputed items in the Rijksmuseum such as them?

DANIEL SOLIMAN: No, there are none in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden. There are of course, a number of famous iconic pieces in Europe and North America that are high on the list of mostly Egyptian archaeologists who want them to be repatriated. None of them happen to be in the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden. Having said that, our museum wants to be open to international dialogue, including, of course, with our Egyptian colleagues. So should a claim ever arise we are open for discussing that together. And if there is a good case, then our museum is not the one who decides on potential repatriation. This is something that the Minister of Culture would have to do, but the museum would then again, if there would be a good case, would then advise the Minister to indeed repatriate the objects to Egypt.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you so much. That was just amazing. I just wonder, I’m making a huge assumption that the Egyptian people were comfortable with death to a far greater extent than we tend to be socially today. We tend to, there’s articles all the time saying how we can live longer and we want to look younger longer, and we spend gazillions of dollars trying, but is there, am I wrong in my assumption that Egyptians, general Egyptians, as well as wealthy ones were quite comfortable with the idea of death, that it was part of their existence?

DANIEL SOLIMAN: Yeah, great question, really great question. It allows me to say something, it’s very personal, also to museum exhibitions. We in the here and now, right, we’ve talked, we’ve spoken about our fascination with ancient Egypt. We continue to place a lot of emphasis on death in ancient Egypt and that has much to do with the fact that the objects that we have from ancient Egypt often come from that context of tombs etcetera. Like I said, Archaeology had focused mostly on temples and tombs. So much of our material comes from that. But if you look, for example, at written sources from ancient Egyptians, they wish each other a long life. They hope that, one way to wish someone a good life, success, is to hope that they live for a hundred years. Just people enjoying life very much.

So we have medical papyri, one is on display in the exhibition with the recipes for medicine. People also wanted to live as long as they could. They wanted to be healthy. We have also evidence of the opposite, of people saying how much they fear death, or rather, let me give you a concrete example. There’s evidence of songs from ancient Egypt encouraging people to enjoy life, because what happens after the afterlife is perhaps not so great. They say look at the tombs and the necropolis, they’ve all crumbled, no one is taking care of them, live your life now because you don’t know what will happen in the afterlife. So certainly, the ancient Egyptians were very much enjoying life, trying to live in the here and now, still preparing for the afterlife, but like us, certainly, maybe not so happy with the idea that there would be an end to that life.

EMMA MACDONALD: But they were certainly much better prepared for what happened beyond life. And I love that some of the things that have been included in tombs are hair combs, cosmetics – because I mean, if you’re rising from the dead to go somewhere else, you want to look your best – flasks, games, board games. So there was that sense of continuity. And even if you were living with gods, you still want a bit of fun.

DANIEL SOLIMAN: Absolutely yes. So I think that only supports the idea how much the ancient Egyptians enjoyed life. They wanted it to continue in the afterlife. So indeed, you’ll be with the gods, but you’re still going to play a game of Senet. You still want to drink your beer and you still want to wear your finest clothes. Absolutely.

EMMA MACDONALD: That was a great question. Who’s next?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: [question inaudible/cut from recording]

DANIEL SOLIMAN: In general, yes, they lived not as long as we do now on average. It’s a complicated answer as you can imagine, right? Because, and this is another point, maybe that is good to make. I’ve been talking about ancient Egypt as if we can condense 3,000 years of history into one single image, that’s of course not the case. So it also very much depends on what period we’re talking about. It also depends on what social context we’re talking about.

On average, yes, most people would not have lived as long as we. We know of people who would be as old as 50, 60 years old. There are kings, of whom we know that have reigned for as long as 60 years old. And so who must have been in their 70s and 80s. We also know of many people dying at a very young age, there is of course in antiquity a high mortality rate when it comes to babies and infants, even unfortunately also women dying giving birth to children. So, death, the other face of the coin of living life, there’s also lots of death. More death probably in normal life than we experience in our lives. If that sort of gives you an answer?

EMMA MACDONALD: Does anyone else [have a question?]. I’ve got a question. Oh, [there’s one from the audience].

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you. So you were born in Egypt, live in Holland, and you spent a lot of your life studying about Egypt. And so my question is, is there something that you want people when they go to Egypt to also go to, like, in terms of not just the famous Giza or the temple in Karnak or the Valley, etcetera. But is it something that you would like to recommend somebody, if I’m planning to travel tomorrow?

EMMA MACDONALD: The inside goss.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Something off-beat. You know, something that caught your imagination or fascination that it’s not so popular still.

DANIEL SOLIMAN: Yes, there’s so many places. Do we talk about practicality? Do you want something that’s easy to reach or do you want to go really off the beaten track? OK, practical. Very practical. I suppose, I assume you’re going to Cairo. Very practical. Well, first of all, within Cairo, you’ve got amazing museums, right? Everyone knows the Cairo Museum, but there is also a brand new museum called The [National] Museum of [Egyptian] Civilization. That’s a must see, I would say.

I think most people will also be familiar with an archaeological site called Saqqara. It’s not too far from Cairo, and in fact many of the objects on display in this exhibition come from this site. You could go to Alexandria. That is a fantastic place, also a beautiful contemporary city. Lots of great food, but also amazing archaeology and fantastic museums. If you want to really go off the beaten path, I would recommend going to the oases. There is a number of oases in Egypt, the one in Kharga for example or Dakhla or go to the White Desert. That’s a good ten-hour drive. You need to arrange for that, but the landscape is amazing and there’s also incredible archaeology to be seen there.

EMMA MACDONALD: Write that all down. Jessi?

JESSI ENGLAND: So one of the things on display in the exhibition is the video of the Egyptian workers. And I know this is, obviously we’ve touched on this, an important part of the exhibition. But yeah, would you like to share a little bit more about the inclusion of that video, and I suppose the ideas that come from that as well?

DANIEL SOLIMAN: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for bringing that up. And it also beautifully ties in with what we’ve just said first that when we condense just in one fell swoop, ancient Egypt, you know, 3,000 years of Egypt, of history, ancient Egypt. Well, sure, but there’s also much that comes after that right. ancient Egypt is a framework that we use nowadays, and it helps us talk about certain cultures, but it also restricts our view of history. There’s also much that comes after. And you cannot understand ancient Egypt without understanding contemporary Egypt to an extent, right.

I spoke about how we understand how to read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. We mentioned the stone of Rosetta. We can only understand the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs because we understand an important still-existing Egyptian language and liturgical language called Coptic, that is still used by Orthodox Christians in Egypt to this day. So contemporary Egypt is an overlooked aspect of what we do as Egyptologists and archaeologists. When you speak about Egyptian archaeology, you probably imagine some European guy standing in the desert. That work, that archaeology is done always in tandem with the Egyptian authorities and with lots of Egyptian colleagues, Egyptian archaeologists, also Egyptian archaeological workers, who have been working sometimes at certain archaeological sites for decades and for generations.

This video that you mention, we’ve made this specifically as part of our archaeological field work at this site called Saqqara, where the museum has been excavating for decades together with our colleagues. And that part of excavation is very often overlooked. So what we’ve done in this film, this short documentary film, is we’ve interviewed people from Egyptian communities in Saqqara who work on those sites to tell their story. How did they get their training? Why are they interested in archaeology? What are their ties to ancient Egypt? What does their everyday life look like? So I think that’s a fantastic part of this exhibition that I hope everyone goes and sees, and it underlines what we’ve said, right. You cannot understand ancient Egypt without also being part of understanding contemporary Egypt.

EMMA MACDONALD: I feel we also just very, very briefly need to touch on the fact that there is a slight connection. This exhibition has definitely gone to the ordinary experience of ancient Egypt rather than the Pharaohs and the gods and all the glitz and glamour that we may usually associate. But there is a connection to the tomb of Tutankhamun. Can you explain it and just give us broad brushstrokes, why does everyone know about this? Why was it such an historic discovery?

DANIEL SOLIMAN: Yes, so in the exhibition is a sculpture, a very damaged sculpture of, but still a beautiful, impressive sculpture, of the King Tutankhamun. Right, the king that we all know, this famous king. His tomb was discovered in 1922 famously by Howard Carter and his team of Egyptians. And went on to impress the world because of all the gold, but also the sheer fact that it was so incredibly well preserved.

The interesting thing is that before the discoveries of this tomb, this king was hardly known. And I’ll try to keep it brief, it has much to do with the fact that King Tutankhamun, during his time or just after his reign, he was associated with another ruler, a ruler called Akhenaten, who was in later times considered to be sort of a rebel king whose memory had to be erased. So statues and monuments of Akhenaten had been damaged and destroyed, and also the works of Tutankhamun again associated with this king had been damaged and you can see this in this sculpture in the exhibition, because it’s been really smashed to pieces. Well, not to pieces, but the head is lost, for example, the legs are lost, and you can see the damage that the ancient Egyptians tried to afflict on it. So it tells that story of the almost complete erasure of the memory of King Tutankhamun.

EMMA MACDONALD: I think we call it being cancelled.



EMMA MACDONALD: All right. Now Jessi’s going to say some final words, but before we go, I’ve got a quick question for both of you. Daniel, you’ve devoted your professional career to explaining and understanding Egypt in all of its ancient glory. Why should Canberrans come and view this exhibition? And what will they get from it?

DANIEL SOLIMAN: I think you get the best of both worlds in the sense that it’s a beautiful overview of life in ancient Egypt and a chronological overview, if you will, with both aspects of the daily life as well as the care for the afterlife. And at the same time, very much, it tells the story also of how it is that we are so fascinated with ancient Egypt, and what research we are still doing, how all this research is and how we’re still studying ancient Egypt. Throughout the exhibition you see screens with experts telling about their ongoing research and the results that are coming from that. So I think that’s an important part of this exhibition.

EMMA MACDONALD: And Craig to end with you. Are you proud of the experience that visitors will get when they walk through?

CRAIG MIDDLETON: Yeah, absolutely. We’re very proud. It’s a beautiful show and I think you know, alongside just what Daniel just said, we want people to experience this show, maybe be affirmed by their own knowledge of this culture, but also be surprised and delighted by the things they may not have known and the objects that might not be so recognisable to popular collective memory.

EMMA MACDONALD: Thank you both so much for a brilliant conversation. I hope you’ve all enjoyed it.


JESSI ENGLAND: Thank you so much, Emma, Daniel and Craig. One more round of applause. It’s been a wonderful conversation.


JESSI ENGLAND: So as I mentioned at the start, this is just the first of what will be a fantastic program of events across the period of the exhibition. We’re really excited to continue the conversation and in fact, many of the topics that we’ve started to touch on in this conversation into next year.

So in February, the Museum’s launching a new monthly talk series called Spotlight conversations. A number of those events will be focused on Discovering Ancient Egypt. The first one kicks off on the 8th of February. Tickets are live now on the website and it goes straight into that topic, ‘Why are we so fascinated by ancient Egypt?’ And we’re really going to open that up and pull that apart. We will continue to explore why the enduring Egypt and the kind of history and the shaping of culture over time. We’re going to dive into the ethics of collecting, including the presentation of mummified ancestors and First Nations experiences. And we’re also going to connect with contemporary Egyptian Australian artists and writers and thinkers.

So please keep an eye out for that as well as a whole range of other events that will be available. If you’re not currently joined up to receiving our e-newsletter, if you get on our website, on the homepage down the bottom, you can subscribe. It’s free and then you can get updates on all the great things that are coming up.

Also, just before I finish off, following this event we will send out a survey and we’d really love your feedback. It helps us shape what we’re doing here at the Museum and present lots more interesting experiences for you. And of course, if you haven’t seen the exhibition yet, go and grab a ticket, or if you have, go back, take some friends and try and find the objects that Daniel and Craig have shared with us. Thank you again, thank you very much for coming so close to Christmas. Have a wonderful Christmas and New Year and we’ll see you again.

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