A to Z Abroad: Petrie Museum

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London is well-known for world-class museums like the British Museum, National Gallery, and Tate Modern. These museums all house incredible collections of artifacts and artistic expression, but there is another museum with an equally impressive inventory that often gets overlooked.

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archeology occupies a small space on Malet Place (near Gower St) and is part of University College London Museums and Collections. If you can find the small door and the bell to ring to gain entrance, be prepared to stare in awe at the artifacts contained in row after row of glass cases.

Petrie Museum – Clay vessels and pots
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

Instead of the wide-open spaces of the British Museum, the Petrie feels more like a basement with cramped spaces and crowded shelves. Because many of the artifacts are still utilized for scientific study, the emphasis is not on visual display, but rather meticulous classification. Objects are organized by type (i.e. glasswork, vessels, stone reliefs, jewelry, statues, textiles, tools, etc) and by time period.

Petrie Museum – clay molds used during the Amarna Period
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

Despite the relatively small size of the Petrie Museum, it boasts one of the largest collections of Egyptian artifacts in the world, particularly from the Amarna Period. Forgive me as I geek out, but the Amarana Period has been the subject of years of personal study. There are no words to describe my excitement when I walked through the door and saw thousands of artifacts that existed in an era that I actively try to reconstruct in my mind.

Petrie Museum – Gorgeous glass fragments from Amarna
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

During the Amarna Period,  the Heretic King, Ankhenaten ruled over Egypt. Ankhenaten attempted to transform the polytheistic faith of ancient Egypt into a monotheistic faith system. In effect, he wanted to take away all the gods of Egyptian mythology and replace them with one god, the Aten (or Sun god). In addition, he moved the capital of Egypt to a spot in the middle of the desert and built a new city  in honor of the Aten called Akhetaten, (now known as Amarna). Both ventures were horrific failures and lead to economic and social collapse. Ankhenaten died a reviled figure and left a broken kingdom to his son Tutankhamun, (the infamous King Tut).

Petrie Museum – Stone relief carving
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

Political and religious movements aside, the Amarana Period is also a unique era of artistic expression. Prior to the reign of Ankenaten, Egyptian art maintained a very strict tradition of symmetry with figures that had an almost “boxy” appearance. In Amarna, art took on very different aesthetic with distinctive curves and stronger references to the Aten.

The image below, (on display at the museum) shows these characteristics. A headless Aknenaten has very wide, curvy hips and a drooping belly. In the old style, the Pharaoh would never be depicted as anything less than a perfect god, so showing these imperfections is a drastic change!

A reference to the monotheistic movement can also be seen in the sun “rays” tipped with hands carrying the ankh – a simple of life. Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti are graciously accepting the life-giving force of the Aten and giving offerings in return, (Nefertiti is holding a vessel, which is typically viewed as an offering).

Petrie Museum – Ankhenaten and Nefertiti gathering the gift of life from the Aten
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

While the British Museum has an amazing display of Egyptian artifacts, including the Rosetta Stone, the Petrie Museum is filled with priceless treasures from a revolutionary period of Egyptian history. This history geek is so grateful for the collection that this organization painstakingly maintains.

(How’s that for a quickie history lesson?)

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Part of the A to Z Challenge!

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c.b.w. 2013

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33 thoughts on “A to Z Abroad: Petrie Museum

  1. Sherrey Meyer

    C.B., what an amazing collection and the Petrie is definitely a well kept secret! Your photo detail is also amazing. Thanks for another informative and educational post in the A to Z!

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    • It was so difficult to pick which shots would make it into this post. I love this subject so much, so it was tough to narrow it down to the basics! The Petrie certainly is a well-kept secret and I’m so glad to have found it. 🙂

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  2. Jemima Pett

    I’ve never heard of it either, but then I’m not a big history geek. I like the Museum of London though – I can relate to it better.

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    • I love the Museum of London! You can literally walk through thousands of years of history in an afternoon. It’s really interesting that they tell you exactly where an artifact was found, too. 🙂

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  3. catherinelumb

    As abn Egyptologist the Petrie is my little version of heaven (though my ‘geek out’ happens over the Pre-dynastic period – when the basis of this fascinating culture all began!). If someone asked me where to visit in London if they only had one day – this would be at the top of my list, closely followed by the Grant Museum (the Natural History version of Petrie Museum!).

    Fab post, as usual. And great pictures!

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    • I heard about the Grant Museum, but I ran out of time. It’s definitely going to be on my list for the next time I’m in London. 🙂

      The Pre-Dynastic period is pretty fascinating. King Menes and the Narmer Palette are of particular interest to me as well. Both are at the root of the Egyptian Empire and really symbolize the idea of a centralized state. Prior to that, I like looking at how hieroglyphics evolved from tribal symbols to an advanced writing system.

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  4. Hi CB, great write up and glad you enjoyed the Petrie Museum. You’re enthusiasm shines through every word. A few points, if i may. We HATE being a ‘well-kept secret’ and do our very best to make the museum better known and we are open to the public 1-5pm, Tuesday-Saturday. No need for the bell!
    On your excellent pic of the Akhenaten relief (UC401) the second figure is Nefertiti, not a child. Thier daughter Meritaten stands behind Nefertiti (cropped from your pic).
    Anyone interested in seeing the whole piece, you can search the Petrie catalogue at your leisure – it’s all online at http://petriecat.museums.ucl.ac.uk/search.aspx – enter UC401 in the search box. Or use the advanced search and you can explore sites, or time periods, or types of objects. Or come and see us!

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    • It’s quite exciting to hear from you! I wish more people knew about your wonderful museum so that pesky “well-kept secret” title can be shed, (as you can see by the comments, you have several new fans!). However, I have to say I love the bell. I found it very charming as it made me feel like I was entering a very special place. 🙂

      Thank you so much for your expertise regarding UC401. I took a lot of notes that day on so many artifacts and it looks like they got a little jumbled. I have since corrected that detail on my post.

      I’ll be exploring the link you’ve provided. I’m teaching an art history course during the next school year and your catalogue will be immensely helpful for studies in Egyptian art.

      Thanks again for stopping by!

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  5. London is just full of treasures and I’m sure most tourists only skim the surface, for time reasons alone. It must be wonderful to have these all on your doorstep.

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