Under The Eaves: The Egyptian Collection

Under The Eaves: The Egyptian Collection
Museum of Cornish Life, Helston

Added: 08 February 2021

Tucked at the back of the Victorian classroom is a cabinet with a small collection of Egyptian artefacts. In my time circumnavigating the museum looking for objects and peering into corners, I confess that I have never noticed it. My route to it came from trying to work out what had been folded into the Museum of Cornish Life from the dissolution of the Camborne Museum. Listed in the transfer documents of 2005 were a number of Egyptian objects.

In the cabinet itself is a small plaque: Collection of Egyptian Antiquities Presented by Miss Margaret Taylor of Manor House, Redruth

My research has been constrained by the restrictions imposed by Lockdown, but I have the beginnings of an intriguing, hidden story. The Egyptian Antiquities in the museum appear to have a link to the Victorian passion for exploration through three women. Miss Margaret Taylor, Miss Emily Paterson and Miss Amelia Edwards. It seems appropriate to refer to them as their names appear in records that I have found, hence the unconventional formality. Miss Margaret Taylor, the woman that presented the artefacts, was the long-term friend and companion of Miss Emily Paterson. Miss Paterson came to live with Miss Taylor in 1919, when she retired as the General Secretary of the Egypt Exploration Fund. Miss Paterson had held this post for twenty seven years, across a time when interest and activity in Egyptology was booming. In a time when communication was via letters, Miss Paterson would have been known to the academics, explorers, amateurs and interested public. Miss Paterson came to the position of General Secretary through her employment by Miss Amelia Edwards. In 1888, Miss Edwards appointed Miss Paterson as her private secretary. Miss Edwards was a well-known writer, having published several novels. The book that would change the course of her life was a travel book, One thousand miles up the Nile. Miss Edwards made this journey quite by accident. She was on a tour of Europe with friends and found herself in Alexandria. She chartered a boat, and gathered a group of poets, artists and writers to accompany her up the Nile. This voyage made her aware of the increasing threats to ancient monuments from tourism and development. In 1877 her account of the trip was published, ironically causing more interest in exploration. Miss Edwards wrote, ‘Such is the fate of every Egyptian monument, great or small… The work of destruction goes on apace. There is no one to prevent it; there is no one to discourage it. Every day more inscriptions are mutilated – more tombs are rifled – more paintings and sculptures are defaced.

Miss Edwards wanted to do something about it, and became one of the co-founders of the Egypt Exploration Fund, which was established in 1882. This fund promoted excavation of the monuments using Petrie’s principles, therefore introducing archaeological practice into exploration. In 1891 Miss Edwards contracted a lung infection whilst supervising the unloading of Egyptian artefacts in London docks. The following year she died of pneumonia at her home in Weston-Super-Mare. Before her death, she had commended Miss Paterson’s services to the Fund’s board. In 1892 Miss Paterson was appointed as General Secretary, holding the position until she retired on a full pension in 1919. In 1947, when Miss Paterson died, the Egypt Exploration Society (as it became in 1919) sent flowers to Miss Taylor. In a note of thanks, and the only trace of Miss Taylor in this story so far, she wrote: ‘As the oldest (of 57 years standing) and only friend of the late Miss Emily Paterson I wish to thank the Officers of the Egypt Exploration Society for the beautiful wreath which they kindly sent for her funeral which took place last Saturday,’

In terms of the collection of artefacts, the influence the Egypt Exploration Fund cannot be underestimated. The British Museum boasts the largest collection of Egyptian artefacts outside of Egypt, holding some 50,000 objects. The collection’s largest contributors were Reverend Grenville Chester and then the Egypt Exploration Fund. The British Museum was a major sponsor during this Colonial period. An issue that the museum sector faces is the legality of the ownership of objects taken during this time. There are calls to return objects or repatriate them. In France, Macron has stated that all artefacts taken from their colonies in Africa are to be returned to the country of origin. The British are not quite as forthright. In fact, many museums cannot or do not disclose whether objects were acquired legally or not. Is this the point? Should the rightful place be decided by the courts, or should a more moral line be taken, as shown by the French. For the handful of Egyptian objects in our museum, through the connection from Miss Taylor to Miss Paterson, maybe the objects have a link and provenance to The Egypt Exploration Fund. We believe that they would have come from controlled excavation, but who do they really belong to? This is another part of the story, waiting to be uncovered. Let us hope the records tucked under the eaves can help us understand a little more.

In recognising LGBTQ+ Queer History month it seems important to acknowledge that in 2016 Historic England included the grave of Miss Amelia Edwards and that of her long-term companion Miss Ellen Drew Braysher in their listing as a historic monument as part of their Pride of Place Project.

Julia Webb-Harvey

Volunteer Researcher and Citizen Curator (2020)

Julia and our FINDS Liaison Officer Tasha Fullbrook recently recorded a video-tour of the Egyptian Cabinet. You can watch it here

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