diamond geezer

 Sunday, November 08, 2009

An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
UCL Collections - Petrie Museum

Petrie MuseumLocation: Malet Place, University College London WC1E 6BT [map]
Open: Tue - Fri, 1pm-5pm (& Sat, 11am-2pm)
Admission: free
Brief summary: academic Egyptological hoard
Website: www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/petrie
Time to set aside: an hour

The University of London is reputedly the third oldest in England, after Oxford and Cambridge, established in Gower Street during the reign of George IV. It's old enough to boast (count 'em) eight different museums, most of them small, and several open by appointment only. Only one of these is open at the weekend, and then for only three hours, so I took my chance and that's where I headed. Back in time to the age of the Pharaohs, to an upper room where eighty thousand catalogued Egyptian artefacts are stored.

They don't make museums like the Petrie any more. No buttons to press, no £3 audio guides, just a heck of a lot of very old things in gloomy glass cases. The collection's primary function is to serve the needs of classical and archaeological students, and don't you forget it. Admittance is via a dead-end backstreet, through a not-entirely obvious door, then upstairs to an admissions desk in what looks like one of the campus's forgotten offices. Prepare for items-on-shelf overload, and step inside.

Petrie MuseumThe first short gallery, which is not entirely typical, houses fragments of carved stone. Few are wholly intact, but several slabs are carved with strip upon strip of exquisite hieroglyphics. As languages go, the Egyptian's intricate pictorial script may have been woefully inefficient (and entirely inappropriate for web-based communication), but it doesn't half look good. Another narrow gallery is located alongside, opening out into a larger space beyond, and all bursting with rammed-full glass cases. Don't expect glittering mummies and whopping sarcophagi, these tend to be much smaller more commonplace tomb-raided treasures. Votive tablets, serpentine caskets, and signet rings once worn by Nectaneto II - that sort of thing. Every item in the museum is labelled with a painted serial number plus a short written description, and here you'll find regular reference to dynasties, cartouches and "faience pendants". Ssh, try not to mention that all these objects were thieved from their country of origin by Empire-building 'collectors'.

For a relatively obscure museum, the building was busier than I expected. Some visitors were young couples, quite possibly UCL freshers taking time out to see what their new university had to offer. The rest tended to be older and more scholarly, or were at least pretending to be. A couple of earnest Egyptologists were wandering around, busy telling an ever-decreasing crowd of hangers-on about their favourite Petrie exhibits. It was entertaining to watch their beleaguered audience attempting politely to slip away before their nemesis dived into yet another lengthy anecdote about a big dig or the object of their PhD thesis. "You have to go do you? Pity, but thank you for your attention."

item UC14430A second, lower, gallery contains an unfeasibly high number of different kinds of pot, plus a few hundred tiles for good measure. If Egyptian earthenware is your thing then there's even a table for personal study, or alternatively where visitors under the age of 10 can colour in some pictures in crayon. One one particular wall there's a rack of torches - do take one, because the lighting's kept low throughout the museum to preserve the exhibits from permanent decay. And don't forget to check out the rear staircase, where yet more objects (including a fair number of ornamental cats and a sandstone jackal's paw) have been stashed. No space in this historical repository is underused.

If you want dazzling Egyptian treasures, then head instead for the British Museum. But for a clearer sense of the ancient everyday, or simply for the opportunity to potter round a musty academic backwater, try the Petrie.
by tube: Euston Square

U is also for...
» Undercroft Museum (in Westminster Abbey)
» erm, that's it for London museums, innit?

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