The Asahi Shimbun Display The Past is Present: Becoming Egyptian in the 20th Century explores how symbols of the ancient past were reworked within modern Egypt to create a visual culture for a cosmopolitan and diverse society. This focussed display, curated by Mohamed Elshahed with the British Museum
, brings together 31 objects collected through the British Museums Modern Egypt Project, to explore the ways in which a nation brands itself by drawing on its rich ancient past.
While the word Egypt often evokes images of the Pyramids, for most Egyptians today these monuments on the outskirts of Cairo are far removed from everyday life. During the 20th century, a period which marked great change, modernisation and growth in Egypt, symbols encapsulating the distant past appeared regularly in consumer branding and identity making. On display is a Banque Misr (Bank of Egypt) emblem, which combines the iconic image of Cleopatra with the lotus flower a motif of rebirth common in ancient Egyptian art. Banque Misr was founded in 1920, after the 1919 Revolution against British occupation, and was the first bank owned and managed by Egyptians. The many products of the banks companies, designed for everyday consumption, bore the logo of the bank; Cleopatra was reborn as a symbol of national modernity.
With industry appropriating images of ancient Egypt for branding and identity-making, everyday consumer goods provide a lens through which we can explore how a nation can be inspired by the history that precedes it. From pasta packaging or cigarette boxes depicting the pyramids, to street signs with silhouetted monuments and milk bottles with the Cleopatra logo, images of the past were woven into everyday life. This display thus reveals how 20th century Egypt formed a visual culture that was inspired by that rich history and led to images of ancient monuments and symbols permeating public and private life, as distinct from the European fascination with pharaonic art and iconography (Egyptomania).
The display, which includes Arabic text, is organized in two clusters, bringing together objects relating to public life (signs, posters) with domestic objects used in the home (magazines, cigarette boxes, food packaging). A video work by contemporary Egyptian artist Maha Maamoun, titled Domestic Tourism II, haas been integrated into the display. This splices together scenes from Egyptian films shot in the vicinity of the Pyramids of Giza, underlining how ancient sites were integrated into contemporary cultural productions. Together these works bring the story up to the present day, including how contemporary artists are addressing such imagery.
The Asahi Shimbun Display The Past is Present: Becoming Egyptian in the 20th Century tells a fascinating story through recently accessioned objects, some of which are on display for the first time. The Modern Egypt Project, launched in 2016, considers how our modern world can be represented through material things and preserved for future audiences. Part of this collection will be accessioned by the British Museum, for use in future displays and to be made accessible to researchers. The second part will be donated to an institution in Egypt. In 2017, 25 objects that were acquired for the British Museum were displayed as a pop up installation in the Kodak Passageway Space, Downtown Cairo. This Asahi Shimbun Display connects the project to the British Museums ancient Egyptian collections, which also has important holdings of Late Antique, Fatimid, Mameluke and Ottoman objects from Egypt.
Neal Spencer, Keeper of Ancient and Sudan, says: Egypt, with its fantastic preservation of buildings and objects, presents a fascinating opportunity to see how the layers of history accumulate. Rather than one culture, faith, artistic style or dynasty simply replacing the one before, rather we see continuities in traditions, the layering of different perspectives and influences. The British Museum is now addressing the materiality of Egypts recent history, and with this exhibition highlights how, from 1919, a new visual language developed, drawing on the pharaonic past for everyday consumer goods, culture and entertainment