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Introduction to the project

3 minutes to read

In late 2019, members of the Fitzwilliam Egyptian Coffins team were generously awarded funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) for the project titled Reviving the art of ancient Egyptian mummy portraits in Cairo and the Faiyum: a curatorial, conservation and community collaboration. This project, which due to the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, was underway until July 31, 2021, and was a joint collaboration between the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and colleagues at the Egyptian Museum Cairo (EMC), Kom Aushim Museum in Faiyum, Explore Fayoum, and staff from the Ministry of Antiquities.

The aim of the project was to empower our Egyptian colleagues with deep knowledge about how Faiyum mummy portraits were made and decorated, enabling them to incorporate this knowledge in their interpretation materials of their collections for museum audiences and local communities. It also gave craftsmen in the Faiyum region a chance to connect more profoundly with their local heritage through a deeper understanding of the skills of the creators of these objects, giving them the potential opportunity to revive this ancient craft and boost their income and tourism to the area.

The project commenced in early 2020 with members of the team, Helen Strudwick (Egyptologist, Fitzwilliam Museum) and Lucy Wrapson (Senior Conservator, Hamilton Kerr Institute, Fitzwilliam Museum), travelling to Egypt to meet with local project coordinator, Sara Hany Abed and Grand Egyptian Museum Conservator, Nour Mohamed Badr, for an 8-day reconnaisance trip. This trip focused on discussions with Dr Moamen Othman, Head of the Museums Sector and Dr Sabah Abd el-Razeq, Director of the Egyptian Museum Cairo, both of whom are keen to take this work forward. The team also spent time looking in detail at some of the EMC’s collection of Roman period mummy portraits, finally selecting one for an experimental recreation, which was originally intended to form the basis of two face-to-face workshops in Cairo and Faiyum to train Egyptian colleagues in the production and decoration of the mummy portraits. An important part of the trip was to identify suitable venues in Cairo and Faiyum (bearing in mind that creating mummy portraits involves using hot wax over a naked flame), collecting and purchasing materials to use in the workshops and meeting staff at each venue - especially Kom Aushim Museum, the Faiyum Tourism Authority and local Faiyum arts and crafts community who are all new project partners for us.

Shortly following this trip, however, the world changed and so did the nature of our project. Suddenly, we had to re-work our project into a COVID-secure operation, by delivering our workshops remotely online rather than in-person. In light of this, we worked with local filmmaker Gavin Toomey to develop three training videos - (1) on the preparation and carpentry of the wood on which the portraits were painted (presented by Dr Geoffrey Killen; (2) pigments, painting and the order in which the portraits were painted (presented by Dr Lucy Wrapson); and (3) how to setup and deliver a ‘Pop-Up’ Museum on the topic of Roman-period mummy portraits (presented by Helen Strudwick).

These films were launched in two hybrid seminars delivered remotely by members of the Fitzwilliam Egyptian coffins team at the EMC on Monday 5th July and Tunis Village, Faiyum on Thursday 29th July 2021. The EMC event was attended by 51 people online and 7 face-to-face (facilitated by Sara Hany Abed and Nour Mohamed Badr) and was delivered principally in English. The Faiyum event was attended by 31 people online and 25 face-to-face (again facilitated by Sara Hany Abed and Nour Mohamed Badr with the kind support of Mahmoud Hassan of Explore Fayoum) and was delivered principally in Arabic. The Faiyum event had a particular focus on sharing the project’s research with local Faiyum artists and craftspeople in order to help revive the art of ancient Egyptian mummy portrait painting and re-connect the local community with their cultural heritage and boost local economy through craft sales and tourism.

As soon as the situation presents itself, we look forward to returning to Egypt to deliver the practical components of these seminars - namely, recreating the encaustic technique and experimenting with the different tools and pigments.

The Fitzwilliam Egyptian Coffins team would like to thank Dr Moamen Othman and Dr Sabah Abd el-Razeq for their support and encouragement of this project, and their personal interest in the mummy portraits.

Members of the mummy portraits project team with Egyptian colleagues in Faiyum, 2019.

Filmmaker, Gavin Toomey, video documenting the Fitzwilliam Museum's collection of Faiyum mummy portraits.

Screenshot of the hybrid online-Egyptian Museum Cairo seminar which took place on 5th July, 2021.

Sara Hany Abed and Dr Nour Mohamed Badr with the mummy portrait of Demos in the EMC.

Participants in the mummy portraits seminar at The Ibis, Tunis Village, Faiyum, 29th July 2021.

Participants in the Faiyum seminar with project consultant, Dr Nour Mohamed Badr, translating the presentations live into Arabic.

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