The Egypt Centre collection will forever be associated with the pharmaceutical entrepreneur Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853–1936). Wellcome had a passion for collecting medically related artefacts, aiming to create a Museum of Man. He bought for his collection anything related to medicine, including Napoleon’s toothbrush, currently on display at the Wellcome Collection in London. But he also collected non-medical objects, including many from Egypt. He was a keen archaeologist, in particular digging for many years at Jebel Moya, Sudan, during which time he hired 4,000 people to excavate (fig. 1). Wellcome was one of the first investigators to use kite aerial photography on an archaeological site, with surviving images available in the Wellcome Library.
|Fig. 1: Sir Henry Wellcome at the Jebel Moya excavations. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.|
When Wellcome died in 1936, his collection was cared for by trustees, who were eventually based in London. Much of the collection was dispersed to various museums in Britain, but by the early 1970s some of it remained in the basement of the Petrie Museum. Gwyn Griffiths (1911–2004), lecturer in the Classics Department of University College Swansea (now Swansea University), and David Dixon (1930–2005), lecturer in Egyptology at University College London, arranged for a selection of the artefacts to come to Swansea. The condition of the loan being that the objects ‘should be made available to research workers all over the world, and that part of it, at least, should be shown to the public’. In 1971, ninety-two crates of material arrived in South Wales. These were later supplemented by forty-eight pottery vases. Kate Bosse-Griffiths (1910–1998), wife of Gwyn Griffiths and an Egyptologist, carefully unpacked them and rediscovered a wealth of objects, some of which were still wrapped in 1930s newspapers (fig. 2). These included objects from Armant, Tell el-Amarna, Deir el-Medina, Esna, Mostagedda, Qau el-Kebir, etc. Additionally, some of the artefacts can be traced back to the collections of Robert de Rustafjaell (1853–1943), Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson (1881–1945), Revd Randolph Humphrey Berens (1844–1922), Luigi Palma di Cesnola (1832–1904), Revd William Frankland Hood (1825–1864), and the Revd William MacGregor (1848–1937), amongst others.
|Fig. 2: Wedding photo of Kate and Gwyn Griffiths (1939)|
As a determined and indomitable woman, Kate succeeded in setting up a small museum which resided in the Chemistry Department for two years (fig. 3). However, under the patronage of John Gould (1927–2001), Chair of Greek, a small room in the Classics Department soon housed a number of unique and exciting pieces, several of which Kate and others later published. Roger Davies, the Arts Faculty photographer, and his wife assisted Kate in the setting up of the exhibition. David Dixon, as a Welsh-speaking Welshman had requested that all labels were bilingual, a policy that is still adhered to.
Fig. 3: Dr. Kate Bosse-Griffiths with the collection housed in the science lab (1972).
The collection, which became known as the Wellcome Museum, formally opened to the public in March 1976 (fig. 4) for two afternoons in each week of term (Thursdays and Fridays 2.30–4.30). Some artefacts were also displayed at the Royal Institution of South Wales (now Swansea Museum). Within the University, while some cases were available, many artefacts were displayed unprotected and so in 1978–1979 additional display cases were purchased from the University reserve fund. In 1978 the collection was added to by items from the surplus of items from the Egypt Exploration Society excavations, including many from Amarna, which were distributed by the British Museum. Additionally, in 1982 the Twenty-first Dynasty coffin of the Chantress of Amun, Iwesemhesetmut, was transferred from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter (fig. 5).
Fig. 4: Official opening of the Wellcome Museum in 1976. Left to right: Prof. Gwyn Griffiths, Prof. Robert Steel (University Principal), Dr. Kate Bosse-Griffiths, Mayoress and Mayor of Swansea, Harry James.
In 1993 the title ‘Honorary Curator’ was passed to David Gill, lecturer in the Department of Classics and Ancient History. David had formerly been a research assistant in Greek and Roman antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (1988–1992). Kate continued as ‘Honorary Adviser’. The collection remained under-used, possibly because of resource limitations in terms of staff, money, and space, but also perhaps because of the then unfashionable nature of object-centred learning in universities. In January 1995, Sybil Crouch, manager of the Taliesin Arts Centre, produced a report to the University Image and Marketing Sub Committee suggesting the setting up of a new museum for the Egyptology exhibition. After the suggestion to improve access to the collection, Heritage Lottery Funding and European Regional Development Funding was sought. This, together with a sum from the University, allowed the building of a purpose-built museum as a wing of the Taliesin Arts Centre. A working party, chaired by Prof. Alan Lloyd, an Egyptologist and Head of the Department of Classics and Ancient History, worked on ideas for display. During this time members of the group had included: Sybil Crouch; David Gill; Anthony Donohue (1944–2016), an Egyptologist who had studied the collection over a number of years; Fiona Nixon, a Swansea University architect; and Gerald Gabb, from Swansea Museum Service.
Fig. 5: Dr. Kate Bosse-Griffiths with the recently acquired coffin of Chantress of Amun, Iwesenhesetmut (1982).
During the interim period, David Gill, together with Alison Lloyd of the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, organised an exhibition in the Glynn Vivian called ‘The Face of Egypt’ to show selected items from the Wellcome Museum, as well as items loaned from other Welsh museums, as a foretaste of the new museum. This exhibition proved to be a great success. In 1997, 130 objects were transferred to Swansea from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, where they had been part of a general teaching collection. In the same year the first professional curator, Carolyn Graves-Brown, was employed, and in September 1998 the Museum was officially opened to the public by the Viscount St. Davids (1939–2009) (fig. 6). The following year the Friends of the Egypt Centre was formed and continues to this day. The museum originally had one curator, partly funded by the Council of Museums in Wales. We now have five full-time members of staff, four part-time, and over one hundred volunteers. Each year, around 20,000 visitors come to see the collection of almost 6,000 artefacts, many of which are housed in the two galleries: The House of Death and the House of Life. Since opening its doors, the Egypt Centre has had several donations and loans of artefacts. In 2005, forty-two objects were loaned by the British Museum, while in 2012 a collection of fifty-eight artefacts arrived from Woking College.
In the twenty-two years since the Egypt Centre was formed, several special exhibitions have taken place. The first was Reflections of Women in Ancient Egypt: Women, museums and Egyptologists, which was launched in 2001. In 2005, the Egypt Centre was fortunate to have the temporary loan of the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus from the British Museum, which accompanied the exhibition Pharaoh’s Formula: Maths in ancient Egypt (fig. 7). The most recent was Through the Lens: Images of Egypt 1917–2009, launched in 2010, which showcased photos taken by L.Sgt Johnston of Carmarthen during the First World War.
Fig. 7: Prof. Richard Parkinson unveiling the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus (2005)
The Egypt Centre has organised and hosted a number of international conferences over the past two decades. For example, in December 2005 the museum organised Sex and Gender in Ancient Egypt: ‘Don your wig for a joyful hour’, the proceedings of which were published in 2008. This was followed in 2006 by The Exploited and Adored: Animals in ancient Egypt. In 2010 there was the successful conference Egyptology in the Present: Experiential and experimental methods in archaeology (fig. 8), which was accompanied by a small display exhibit in the House of Life, with the proceedings following in 2015. Demon Things: Ancient Egyptian manifestations of liminal entities was co-organised by the Egypt Centre and the Ancient Egyptian Demonology Project. In 2018, the Egypt Centre hosted the annual CIPEG (Comité international pour l’égyptologie) conference, under the theme of Beating Barriers! Overcoming obstacles to achievement. Most recently, in 2019 the Egypt Centre organised the conference Wonderful Things: The Material Culture of the Egypt Centre. Because of its success, we have decided to make this an annual event. However, due to the current situation, the conference planned for May this year will instead take place via a series of free Zoom lectures, the initial programme of which can be found here. In 2021, we will celebrate fifty years of the collection arriving in Swansea!
Fig. 8: Participants of the Egyptology in the Present conference (2010).
Gill, D. (2005) ‘From Wellcome Museum to Egypt Centre: Displaying Egyptology in Swansea’. Göttinger Miszellen: Beiträge zur ägyptologischen Diskussion 205: 47–54.
Graves-Brown, C. (2004) ‘The birth of the Egypt Centre’. Discussions in Egyptology 59: 23–30.
Griffiths, J. G. (2000) ‘Museum efforts before Wellcome’. Inscriptions: The newsletter of the Friends of the Egypt Centre, Swansea 5: 6.
Griffin, K. (2019) ‘Egypt in Swansea’. Ancient Egypt 20, 2: 42–48.
Larson, F. (2009) An infinity of things: How Sir Henry Wellcome collected the world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rhodes James, R. (1994) Henry Wellcome. Hodder & Stoughton, 1994.