When Turin’s Egyptian Museum (Museo Egizio) was opened in 1824, the hieroglyphic codecracker Jean-François Champollion declared that now ‘The path to Memphis and Thebes passes through Turin’. Yet, by the turn of the current millennium, few visited: its displays and facilities were outdated and cramped, and the museum was engaged in virtually no new research. Despite housing the largest collection of Egyptian artefacts outside Cairo, the museum had become almost entirely forgotten. Something needed to be done.
The Italian government decided to experiment with privatising the museum, a first for Italy. Thus the Egyptian Museum was handed over to a foundation whose shareholders include the Region of Piedmont, the Province of Turin, the City of Turin, the San Paolo and the CRT banking foundations. In 2012, with a deadline of 1,000 days and a budget of €50m, the museum was given a complete transformation.
The museum occupies a grand but delicate 17th-century building. The current architects carefully dug beneath the central courtyard to provide space for the ticket offices and other facilities, and added galleries at roof level. To free up yet more space, the Savoy collection of historic paintings that were on display have also been moved, and are now accommodated in the former Royal Palace, creating a splendid art gallery. All this was done under the driving force of Evelina Christillin, the museum’s dynamic new president. As she told us: ‘Several people have had to “eat their hats”. They said we couldn’t do it in 1,000 days and we couldn’t do it to budget – but we did!’ Meanwhile, the museum’s displays have been completely reconfigured by the new hotshot director, Christian Greco, formerly Curator of the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden
The result is a triumph: the layout and labelling of the museum are among the best we have seen anywhere, and the museum has become the thing to do in Turin. With annual visitors now topping one million, and entry at €15 a ticket, the museum is entirely self-sufficient. It is serving as a model for museums elsewhere in Italy. So, what is to be seen?
Tour through time
Having entered at basement level, we are taken to the top floor by escalators. From there we embark on a tour through time. Beginning in the era before the pharaohs, we work our way down the floors through galleries containing splendours from the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, finishing around the 6th century AD.
Perhaps the most extraordinary displays relate to three magnificent tombs excavated under Ernesto Schiaparelli, the museum’s director from 1894 until his death in 1928. He was a prolific worker – bringing material back to Turin with great success. A contemporary of Petrie, he had good assistants, notably Virginio Rosa, who undertook valiant work as a teenager but sadly died at the age of 25. However, Rosa left a daily journal in which he recorded what had been found and where during the day, which has proved very useful.
Schiaparelli’s work was concentrated at two main sites: Gebelein, some 30km south of Luxor, and Deir el Medina, an area on the west bank at Luxor that includes both a workman’s village and the Valley of the Queens.
The earliest of the tombs, uncovered at Gebelein, is today known as the Tomb of the Unknown as no name of the owner was discovered. Dating to the 5th Dynasty (2435- 2305 BC), it resembles a chamber tomb, with a passage leading down to three rather irregular chambers cut into the rock. It was excavated under the direction of Rosa, who made immaculate drawings of the main chamber, where numerous objects including wooden beds and chests were discovered. It is largely thanks to Rosa’s drawings that the whole chamber has been re-erected in the museum.
The second extraordinary tomb also comes from Gebelein, and belongs to Iti, who was Chief of Troops, and his wife Neferu. This belongs to the first intermediate period (2118-1980 BC) when pharaonic rule had broken down and Iti had presumably established himself as a local ruler at Gebelein. This was more of a temple than a tomb, with a row of rooms quarried out into the rock and fabulous wall paintings, which were removed by Schiaperelli and are again on display in all their glory.
The third tomb is the biggest and latest of all. It occupies the whole of a large gallery. This was the Tomb of Kha, who was Director of Works, and his wife Merit. They were buried near Deir el Medina, and lived during the period of Amenhotep II, Thutmosis III, and Amenhotep III (1428-1351 BC) at the height of the New Kingdom. This is one of the few untouched tombs to be discovered in Ancient Egypt, and in many ways is even better than Tutankhamen’s because it had not been robbed and turned over in antiquity. Like Russian dolls, Merit was buried inside two coffins, while Kha was ensconced in three, including a very elaborate middle coffin. But the whole gallery is full of the ancillary paraphernalia, such as beds and the headrests, the food (bread, fruit and nuts), and even their clothing – including no fewer than 60 triangular briefs for Kha to wear in the afterlife.
Seeing all the items together and in their proper context is a revelation. Prior to the arrival of Christian Greco, everything had been organised in encyclopaedic terms, with galleries dedicated to just papyri, or pottery, and so on. This meant that enormously important artefacts were often completely overlooked – for example, few ever set foot in the Papyrus Gallery, despite it containing material that left Champollion breathless, such as the king list that forms the basis for all our chronology of Egypt. In Cracking the Egyptian Code, Andrew Robinson quotes from a letter by Champollion to his brother describing the Museo Egizio in 1894:
On entering this room in the museum, I was seized with a mortal chill at the sight of a table ten feet in length, covered from end to end with a layer of papyrus debris, to a depth of at least half a foot… How to shield oneself from emotion when stirring this ancient dust of centuries? I philosophised extravagantly – no chapter of Aristotle or Plato was as eloquent as these scraps of papyrus.
With such priceless material now integrated into the collections, we see and enjoy it all.
One gallery remains untouched – the original highlight of the collection: the Royal Gallery. This consists of all the museum’s full-sized statues, which are too heavy to be moved and remain where they were on the ground floor. These formed the original collection made by Drovetti, the French consul in Egypt at the time of the Napoleonic invasion, who collected a large number of statues, many of them from the Karnak temples at Luxor, in the aftermath of Napoleon. Within this gallery, look out for the exquisite stone statue of Pharaoh Ramesses II (r.1279-1213 BC), which has long been the museum’s ‘trademark’. There is also a newer addition in a side gallery – the Temple of Ellesiya from Nubia, southern Egypt, saved in the emergency of the building of Lake Nasser and given to Turin as a thank you for its part in the rescue.
While in Turin we also met up with Christian Greco, whose plans for the museum include ongoing collaborations with Egyptian colleagues, new research opportunities, and a series of special exhibitions. As Greco enthused: ‘The museum stopped talking to the world for many years, but now we are talking again.’ And so it seems that the path to Memphis and Thebes is passing through Turin once again. Do visit if you can.
Images: Museo Egizio, Torino