Skip to main content

Reviving the art of ancient Egyptian mummy portraits

02 Nov 2020

Melanie Pitkin

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. As the title suggests, we are collaborating with colleagues at the Egyptian Museum Cairo (EMC), Kom Aushim Museum in the Faiyum, and staff from the Ministry of Antiquities in a project to empower them with deep knowledge about how the 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 will also give 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.

As intended, the project began in the New Year 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 reconnaissance trip. This trip focused on discussions with Mr 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 will form the basis of two 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 have been working 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 Geoffrey Killen); (2) pigments, painting and the order in which the portraits were painted (presented by 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 and Melanie Pitkin).

The first workshop to be delivered remotely by the Fitzwilliam team is scheduled to tentatively take place in May 2021 with a group of EMC curators and conservators. After participating in the 2-day workshop, which will involve Sara and Nour leading the demonstrations of the recreation in-person, this group will travel south to lead the training of their Faiyum colleagues and the local arts and crafts community. Members of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s project team in the UK will be on hand (even if only remotely!) to provide support. This arrangement is part of a peer-to-peer training network we have been working to establish since February 2019, which is designed to empower and upskill our Egyptian colleagues, enabling wider reach to this knowledge from audiences in more geographically diverse locations.

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

To find out more about the project (beyond this website), please head over to Twitter and follow the hashtag #fitzmummyportraits.

Images below courtesy of Julie Dawson and Sara Hany Abed.

Created: 02 Nov 2020 Global Challenges Research Fund gcrf Roman Egypt mummy portraits Faiyum portraits Fayum portraits

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn
University of Cambridge logo The British Academy Logo Isaac Newton Trust logo GCRF Logo
University of Cambridge Museums logo Designation scheme Logo Accredited Museum status logo Cambridge City Council Logo Arts Council England Logo Research England logo