To coincide with the launch of a spectacular blockbuster exhibition entitled Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt, which runs from October 13, 2022 – February 19, 2023 at the British Museum, we recently caught up with Dr Kelly Accetta Crowe (2010, Egyptology), Project Curator, Department of Egypt & Sudan. She told us about her incredible journey curating this exhibition along with the story of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, and the history of the decipherment of hieroglyphs.
On the 14th of September 1822, a young and enthusiastic linguist named Jean-François Champollion burst into his brother’s room in exhilaration. “I’ve done it!” he gasped, throwing his papers into the air, and collapsing into a dead faint.
200 years later, the British Museum celebrates this moment, the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
'I have been working as a project curator on this exhibition since October 2021, alongside lead curator Ilona Regulski. Quite a lot goes into exhibitions of this size – the core team alone consisted of 27 individuals from departments across the museum, including curators (in charge of the story and choosing objects), interpretation managers (to make sure the curators don’t write labels unintelligibly!), designers (to turn the vision into a physical reality), conservators (keeping the objects safe and healthy), collection managers (storing, transporting and mounting objects securely), loan officers (to obtain objects from other museums), marketing (designing the poster, title and other advertising), publication editors (for the catalogue), communications (releasing the information to the right people at the right time), and more, all under the watchful eye of a very busy project manager.
Plans for this exhibition started long ago. The key to the decipherment, an imposing black granodiorite stone stela best known as the ‘Rosetta Stone’, has been a part of the British Museum’s collection since 1802. Although it is the most visited object in the Museum, the Rosetta Stone’s full story isn’t as well known as we would like, and this new exhibition was the perfect opportunity to rectify this.
Of course, the story of decipherment of hieroglyphs doesn’t start in 1802, or even in 1799 when the Stone was uncovered in the port city of Rashid by Napoleonic soldiers fixing the foundations of a fort into which it had been repurposed. This is why we decided our exhibition would start many years before. Visitors to the exhibition step into the journey of decipherment around 400 AD when the knowledge of how to read hieroglyphs was lost, a result of increased interactions with other empires – notably Greece and Rome – which brought with them their own scripts and laws. The story twists and turns, as does the visitor path around the plinths of objects in the gallery. From medieval Arab scholars convinced hieroglyphs held the key to alchemy, to Renaissance intellectuals creating the first ‘cabinets of curiosities’ (the precursors to modern museums) – early interest in hieroglyphs was rife. These flashes of brilliance in the darkness still relegated hieroglyphs to symbolism and magic; scholars had not yet realized they represented a spoken language.
The discovery of the Rosetta Stone forms a crucial turning point, and thus we placed it at the centre of the exhibition space, physically embodying its lynchpin role in the ‘before’ and ‘after’. Its inscription – repeated in three scripts: hieroglyphs, the script of the priesthood; demotic, an Egyptian cursive script used in everyday documents; and ancient Greek, the language of the king and the royal administration – gave scholars their first real opportunity to play codebreaker. Many tried, but were soon frustrated, leaving two main characters in this race to decipherment: the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion and the Englishman Thomas Young. Here the exhibition visitor enters a new space, designed to look as if you’re spying on the scholars at their work over the next 23 years, with desks and books, and yes, flying papers in the air. On the 27th of September 1822, presumably fully recovered from his dramatic fainting spell, Champollion announced his findings to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris, a moment now considered to be the birth of the field of Egyptology.
But the story doesn’t end there, and so neither could our exhibition. Over the last 200 years, hundreds of scholars across the world have continued to perfect our understanding and translate texts in hieroglyphs, demotic, and hieratic (another cursive script), enabling us to find out what life was like in ancient Egypt from the Egyptians themselves. Their words are sometimes propaganda, sometimes truth, often tied to ritual, religion, or death. There are love poems, tax penalties, jokes, temple inscriptions, calendars, maths textbooks and Books of the Dead – a virtual library of life recorded for eternity. Working with our incredible designers, OPERA Amsterdam, we planned the exhibition’s final space to feel alive and vibrant, with audio and enormous environmental projections meant to take you straight to the shores of the Nile.
When I was an undergrad in America, I stopped at the British Museum during a layover on my way to Egypt. It was my first time in the UK, and I remember being bowled over by the lot of it, and especially sad I wasn’t staying. Imagine my delight a year later when I was accepted to study for my MPhil in Egyptology at Sidney Sussex, a love affair that turned into another 5 years for my PhD, and during which I volunteered in the Department of Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum. There are few places in the world better than the British Museum for an Egyptologist, and curating this exhibition has genuinely been a dream come true.’
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