The idea of museums grew out of the imperial cabinets of curiosities that were composed of a disparate range of objects from natural history, to art, to casts of objects from other collections. The eighteenth-century English tradition of the Grand Tour to classical lands hastened the idea of assemblages of similar materials concentrated in galleries, although the prototypes of public galleries were found in private stately homes. Interest in Egyptian art began after Napoleon Bonaparte's military expedition to Egypt in 1798, attended by 167 savants led by Dominique-Vivant Denon; it included geographers, botanists, and draftsmen, who mapped and recorded the flora, fauna, and all standing ancient monuments. Their results were published in a series of large folio volumes (1809–1816). These publications and the consequent collection of objects later seized by the British government after winning the Napoleonic Wars (including the Rosetta Stone), brought Egyptian art into the incipient state museums, previously dedicated to gathering classical material, and onto public display. With the appointment of consuls to Egypt, such as Henry Salt (Britain), Bernardino Drovetti (France), and Giovanni Anastasi (Sweden-Norway), competition increased to amass collections of Egyptian art. The French were succeeded in Egypt by Muhammad Ali Pasha, who opened the country to foreign tourism. As a focus for tourists, many ailing and wishing to flee the northern European climate, the Egyptian souvenir trade developed.

The British Isles.

The Egyptian collection of the British Museum started with a varied core brought together by Sir Hans Sloane in 1753. The collection grew when the Rosetta Stone and other Egyptian antiquities seized from Napoleon were lodged in the new national museum. The gift of the colossal New Kingdom bust of Ramesses II, jointly presented by the Swiss explorer Jean-Louis Burckhardt and the British consul-general Henry Salt initially awakened the interest of the public in Egyptian art. The first of three large collections, formed through the energy and skill of a former circus strongman and aspiring engineer, Giovanni Battista Belzoni, were sold to the British Museum by Henry Salt for £2,000 in 1823 (the asking price was £8,000). The alabaster sarcophagus of Sety I was sold separately to John Soane whose collection and London home was transformed into a museum. Belzoni, who was undaunted by the difficulties of moving large sculptures from Egypt to Europe, was responsible for claiming the colossal head of the “young Memnon,” where the French had failed. Further material for the Egyptian collection in the British Museum was acquired from Henry Salt and from another Salt agent, Giovanni d'Athanasi, after Salt's death. Many important papyri were purchased from Giovanni Anastasi, an Armenian businessman who resided in Alexandria and who also served as consul in Egypt for Norway and Sweden. John Barker, Salt's successor in Egypt in 1833 also provided Egyptian objects for the museum as did the Egyptologist James Burton and numerous private collectors. The Egyptologist E. A. Wallis Budge was employed at the British Museum in 1883, became Keeper in 1894, and aggressively acquired material from Egypt on numerous visits, despite the increasing protest against the removal of antiquities. The Egypt Exploration Fund (later the Egyptian Exploration Society), was created in 1882. Numerous excavations under its auspices resulted in the division of archaeological finds, which were subsequently divided among the subscribing institutions and university museums.

Other Egyptian collections in the British Isles owe their existence to donations by collectors and to the divisions of archaeological finds from Egypt Exploration Society (EES) excavations. University collections were developed at Cambridge, Oxford, University College London, Manchester, Liverpool, and Durham during the nineteenth century. Alumni also showed allegiance to their schools by donating Egyptian artifacts to Eton and Harrow. Private collecting fueled exhibitions early in the twentieth century, such as at the Burlington Fine Arts Club and at Sotheby's public auctions in London.

Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum, whose doors opened in 1848, had a substantial classical collection with only a few Egyptian objects, such as twenty-first dynasty coffins. The objects were the gifts of two university college fellows, B. Hanbury and G. Waddington, who traveled to Egypt in 1820 in the wake of Napoleon's army. They were accompanying the army of Muhammad Ali Pasha, commanded by his son, Ismail, in its conquest of Sudan. The monumental granite relief coffin lid of King Ramesses III (1198–1166 BCE) was given to the museum by Giovanni Belzoni, Salt's agent, who hoped in vain for some honorary academic recognition for such a gift. There followed the bequests of the society painters and joint collectors C. S. Ricketts and C. H. Shannon (1937) and of R. G. Gayer-Anderson (1943, 1947, and 1949), who left a small Islamic museum in Cairo in return for permission to remove his substantial collections to the Fitzwilliam Museum.

The Ashmolean Museum at Oxford was enriched by gifts from alumni, especially by the Reverend G. J. Chester (1831–1892), and by material excavated under the auspices of the Egypt Exploration Fund. The Griffith Institute housed within the museum, is a center for provenancing finds and has a premier archaeological library and database. The museum at University College London was largely formed by the archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie, who first bought material (1880–1892) in Egypt, packed it into fifty tea chests, and sold it to the museum; the collection was then augmented annually with material from his excavations. The Manchester and Liverpool university museums were also largely formed by divisions from excavations. A Manchester textile merchant, Jesse Haworth, substantially financed the EEF excavations at the town sites of Illahun and Gurob, accounting for the large amount of daily life material in his home city. Durham owes much of its collection to the fourth Duke of Northumberland, who acquired Egyptian antiquities from auctions, from the third collection of Salt, and from that of James Burton. The Duke's fine Egyptian gold jewelry and scarabs, however, were sold at a Sotheby's auction in 1875. The Eton College collection was created from gifts by former students, and Harrow School owes its collection to the generosity of Sir John Gardner Wilkinson (died, 1875). Edinburgh has a good collection of Egyptian art, some of which was derived from donations by A. H. Rhind (died, 1863).


The Louvre's collection began with the temporary collection amassed by Napoleon. Dominique-Vivant Denon then became his director general of museums. The first modern state museum was named the Musée Napoléon from 1803–1814, but the contents were returned to the owners in 1813. The museum was renamed after Charles X, before finally being named Musée du Louvre, with Jean-François Champollion as the original keeper of Egyptian antiquities. The Louvre acquired several distinguished collections: from Salt in 1826 (his second collection, through the agency of Yanni Athanasiou) composed of some four thousand pieces, which sold for £10,000; Bernardino Drovetti's second collection of some five hundred masterpieces in 1827 (Drovetti also sold two other collections to the King of Sardinia [now in Turin] and to the Berlin Museum); from Clot-bey in 1852; from Anastasi in 1857; and from Tyskiewicz in 1862. The government of France acquired the zodiac that was removed from the ceiling of the temple at Dendera, by Sébastien Louis Saulnier, and the Table of Kings from the Great Temple at Karnak, taken by Emile Prisse d'Avennes; this last was transferred from the Bibliothèque National to the Louvre, along with all the other Egyptian holdings in 1922, followed by those of the Musée Guimet in 1946. A long tradition of French excavations in Egypt has continuously increased the holdings in the Louvre. Auguste Mariette's excavations at Saqqara has produced some seven thousand objects for the Louvre. Excavations at Abu Rowash resulted in the images of the ill-fated son of Khufu (r. 2609–2584 BCE). From Medamud came a large Middle Kingdom find of silver treasures. The Louvre holdings of daily life objects and funerary material are vast, with some one thousand inscribed stelae. As well, numerous smaller collections are kept throughout France.


Museums. The Cairo Museum. (Courtesy David P. Silverman)


The Egyptian collection in Berlin was begun in 1698 with Friedrich III's purchase of material amassed by Giovanni Petro Bellori. It was eventually removed by Napoleon to Paris, only to be returned with pieces added as an interest payment. The purchase, in 1823, by Wilhelm III of General Heinrich von Minutolis's collection was followed in 1828 by the acquisition of some two thousand objects from Giuseppe Passalacqua's collection that had been cataloged by Champollion's brother. Passalacqua became director of the new museum and acquired the collections of Drovetti in 1836 and Saulinier in 1839 bringing the total number of objects to about five thousand. Richard Lepsius made an expedition to Egypt under Wilhelm IV, and he surveyed, excavated, and acquired fifteen hundred objects for the museum (1842–1846). A new museum on Museum Island was opened in 1850, with Lepsius as its director in 1865. Adolf Erman followed Lepsius as director and acquired the Berlin Green Head and the wooden head of Tiye. Excavations by the architect Ludwig Borchardt at the sun temple of Newoserre, at Abu Ghurob, at Abusir, and at Tell el-Amarna (1911–1914), which produced the bust of Nefertiti and the studio objects of the chief sculptor Thutmose, greatly amplified the collections of the Berlin Museum. The collections were packed into seven underground depots for the duration of World War II, during which two of the depots were destroyed. Much was taken to Russia at the war's end, to be returned in 1958 to the (then) East Berlin museum isle site. In 1967, an Egyptian museum was opened in West Berlin, opposite the Charlottenberg Palace. Plans to unite the two museums at the former East Berlin site are underway.

Other great museums in Germany were created through donations by collectors and by means of membership in the Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft (DOG), which financed and organized Egyptian excavations. The museum at Munich included material from the Villa Albani (donated in 1815–1816) including the colossal figure of Antinous, material from Ferdinand Michel (1824), and some Roman booty confiscated from Napoleon. Those objects were sold by Cardinal Alessandro Albani to King Ludwig I of Bavaria (r. 1825–1848) to finance the return transport to Rome for the remaining artifacts, since an impoverished France could not pay for the move. Ludwig I also bought antiquities from Drovetti for the Munich museum and in 1837 he purchased half the royal Meroitic gold treasure from the pyramid of Queen Amanishakheto. Soon, F. W. F. von Bissing's purchases from the antiquities trade and his excavations enlarged the museum's collections.

The collection at the Kestner Museum in Hanover was largely acquired from the collector August Kestner (died, 1853), who studied under Jean-François Champollion in Rome and who was further encouraged by Lepsius. The museum at Hildesheim was created through purchases by Wilhelm Pelizaeus who first traveled to Egypt in 1869; he purchased material for himself and at the behest of Hermann Roemer for his home town museum. His support of the Old Kingdom Giza excavations under Steindorff, and later Junker, ultimately led to a large bequest of sculpture to the Museum by Pelizaeus, which bears the two founding names. Frankfurt's Liebieghaus museum owes its rich collection of Roman period mummy masks to C. M. Kaufmann, who acquired them early in the twentieth century in Giza, although they came from tombs in Hermopolis.

Several German university museum collections were created in the nineteenth century largely through finds from excavations. Leipzig's first nonclassical acquisition was the wooden sarcophagus with raised-relief texts from Hed-bast-iru, presented by Lepsius in 1842. Georg Steindorff in 1893 acquired the concession to excavate the officials' cemetery at Giza and thereby greatly enriched the collections with Old Kingdom pieces, including a rare copper alloy, gilt diadem with fretted wood roundels. Middle and New Kingdom material was added to the museum's collection through the Nubian excavations at Aniba. The Heidelberg University Museum owed its creation to the energies of Hermann Ranke and material derived from the excavation at Middle Egyptian sites including el-Hiba, which produced a fragment of the lower part of a limestone statue that depicts a Roman pharaoh with a richly decorated kilt and Herakles club. Objects in the collection also derived from Junker's work in 1927–1928 at Merimda in the Nile Delta, and through Heidelberg's membership in the DOG excavations at Abusir. The museum at Tübingen acquired the Seshemnofer relief from the decorated burial chamber through von Sieglin's 1911 expedition at Giza. The museum also obtained DOG material, especially Old Kingdom reliefs from Abu Ghurob.


Vienna's Egyptian collection was mainly derived from private benefactions to the imperial collections while the Kunsthistorisches Museum was being built from 1871–1891. With the assassination of Archduke Maximilian (shot in 1867 by Benito Juárez in Mexico), his collection, derived from his father Karl and from his own visit to Egypt in 1855, became the property of the museum. In the twentieth century, the museum received many excavation divisions from Hermann Junker's Old Kingdom excavations at Giza (1912–1929), from Nubia (1961–1965), and from Thebes (since 1960) and the eastern Delta (since 1966).


The collections of the Museo Gregoriano Egizio in the Vatican were begun by Clemente XIV (1767–1774) and Pius VI (1775–1799), through excavations at the Italian villas Domiziano and Tiburtina. Important sculptural additions were made to the Egyptian collection during the time of Gregory XVI (1838) at Orti Sallustiani, Campo Marzio, and Hadrian's villa. Gregory XVI also transferred to the Vatican many Egyptian sculptures, including the Ptolemaic royal statues found at Sallustiani in 1714. Leon XIII received a large benefaction in 1900 from the Khedive of Egypt. The Museo Egizio of Turin was founded in 1824 with some eight thousand objects collected by Bernardino Drovetti as the first of three collections, which was originally offered for sale to France and finally bought by the King of Sardinia. This collection is composed of some one hundred large sculptures, including those of King Amenhotpe II, a sphinx of Amenhotpe III, a Tutankhamun pair statue (with Amun), Ramesses II, and a posthumous cult statue of Amenhotpe I, as well as some 170 papyri, numerous stelae, sarcophagi, and a wealth of material from tombs and from daily life. Another collection in Rome is the Museo Barrocco, named after the collector. Florence was a main center for the art market from 1824–1838 and, along with Bologna, has a fine collection.

The Netherlands.

The National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden owes the foundation of its collection to Wilhelm I who, in 1818, combined two university core collections. Soon, C. J. C. Reuvens was appointed the first professor of archaeology and the first curator; he used the position to make a study of museology. Reuvens acquired 325 objects from Maria Cimba, whose husband was Henry Salt's physician, and whose collection derived from Salt in 1827. Reuvens, in competition with Champollion, succeeded at acquiring the first of three collections composed of 5,675 objects from Giovanni d'Anastasi, the Armenian businessman who also served as Consul in Egypt for Norway and Sweden (1828). He also obtained the collection of J. B. de Lescluze, which had been bought from Jean Barthou, Anastasi's agent, and sold along with various objects from Salt, Drovetti, and Anastasi. Benefactions from the Egyptian government (1893), from the Netherlands consul in Egypt, A. Tj. van der Meulen (1934), excavation divisions, and the acquisition of the greater part of F. W. von Bissing's collection (1939) increased the holdings at Leiden. In Amsterdam, the Allard Pierson Museum's Egyptian collection was largely formed by the banker and excavation financier, C. W. Lunsingh.

Other European Collections.

Other major continental Egyptian collections include the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, founded by the brewer Carl Jacobsen (1842–1914) who acquired material by himself and through his curator, Valdemar Schmidt, in the antiquities market and in Egypt. The connoisseur's collection, formed by Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian in the 1920s and loaned to the British Museum and National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., found a permanent home in Lisbon in 1960. Among the highlights are the fine siliceous head of King Amenhotpe III (r. 1410–1372 BCE) and the rare partial bronze figure of King Petubastis (813–c.773 BCE), inlaid with precious metals.

The Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire in Brussels was founded in 1835 and formed its collection similarly to the museum in Leiden. The diplomat and collector Emile de Meester de Ravestein gave many pieces to the museum in 1884; these were followed by the acquisition of mummy coffins, excavated by E. Grèbaut from the necropolis at Deir el-Bahri. With the arrival of the Egyptologist Jean Capart to the museum staff, (1877–1947) efforts were concentrated toward purchasing high-quality works of art from other collections. The museum also subscribed to the EES excavations, receiving divisions in return. In 1935, it received the royal collection of Leopold II, which included a wooden statuette with part of a papyrus, describing the events in the reign of King Ramesses IX (r. 1139–1120 BCE) that completes the so-called Amherst Papyrus preserved in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City.

Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

In the Athens National Museum, Egyptian material collected by expatriate Greeks, such as Ioannis Dimitriou and Alexander Rostovitz, was reinstalled in the late twentieth century. Among the highlights are the well-preserved twenty-fifth dynasty bronze figure of Takushit, inlaid with precious metals. Other, mostly Roman-Egyptian material is displayed in the Benaki Museum in Athens, named after the collector and founder. There is a small collection in the Czech Republic, in Prague. In Poland, a fine collection assembled by the nobleman Wladyslaus Czartoryski (1828–1894) is in Krakow and another smaller collection is in Warsaw.


The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow is composed largely of a single collection formed by Vladimir Golenischev. The collection was begun in the 1870s and was originally housed in a private museum in Leningrad before being sold to the state in 1909. It is well known to students of ancient Egyptian language because of the wealth of textual material of its large number of stelae. The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg includes the papyrus with the Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor.


A profound interest in Egyptian art in Japan has resulted in numerous temporary loan exhibitions. Recently, the privately funded Miho Museum opened with works of staggering quality.

Arab Republic of Egypt.

The Egyptian Antiquities Service was founded in 1835, but the national collection, stored first in the Ezbakiah Gardens and later in the Cairo Citadel, continued to be used as a source of gifts to visiting foreign dignitaries. In 1855, Khedive Abbas I, ruler of Egypt, presented the remains of the collection to the Austrian Archduke Maximilian. The illicit excavation of the tomb of Queen Ahotpe (1859) in Western Thebes, and its seizure by François Auguste Ferdinand Mariette Pasha (1821–1881), heralded the arrival of the first director of the antiquities service, who was also responsible for moving the national museum to Boulaq (the precise whereabouts are unknown). A high flood in 1878 necessitated a further move to a palace of Ismail Pasha in 1890 (on the site of today's Cairo Zoo) before the move to its present site at Qasr el-Nil in 1902. The architect Ludwig Borchardt installed the collection at the Cairo Museum and conceived the monograph series publication Catalogue General. Since its inception, a number of general guidebooks have appeared and computerization of the collections has begun. With the general acknowledgment that the Cairo Museum is overcrowded and poorly accommodated, feasibility studies have been undertaken to examine a one hundred-acre site at junction of Fayoum and Alexandria roads. Other museums in Egypt include the Luxor Museum (designed and built by Dr. Mahmud El Hakim in 1969 and opened in 1975), composed almost invariably of local finds by the Egyptian Department of Antiquities and newly enhanced by the discovery in 1989 of a hoard of twenty-six statues found at the Luxor temple; the Elephantine Museum, enhanced by an annex; and the Nubian Museum at Aswan (1997), which includes many finds from the Nubian salvage campaign during construction of the Aswan High Dam. The Greco-Egyptian Museum at Alexandria has a post-pharaonic Ptolemaic and Roman collection, begun in 1891, although the building was not erected until 1895.

The United States.

The main American collections of Egyptian antiquities are in the East: New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Brooklyn Museum of Art, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, and Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery. The Egyptian department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded in 1906, with Albert Lythgoe as its first director. That same year, an Egyptian excavation procured for the museum Middle Kingdom finds from el-Lisht (1906–1934) and eleventh and eighteenth dynasty finds from the funerary temples of Montuhotep and Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri (1911–1931). In 1978, the Dendur temple, acquired during the 1960s–1970s building of the Aswan High Dam, was installed in a new wing of the museum. The policy of the department is not to maintain closed storage for scholarly study, but to have the museum's entire holdings on view.

The Brooklyn Museum of Art concentrates its exhibits on high-quality objects. Its collections were largely acquired, beginning with purchases in 1902, from W. M. Flinders Petrie, but substantial excavated material was added to the museum's holdings through support of the Egypt Exploration Fund and its excavations. The museum also supported the Predynastic excavations of Henri de Morgan (1906–1908) in Upper Egypt. The largest donation included the library of the amateur Egyptologist Charles Edwin Wilbour, now the largest library for Egyptology in the Western Hemisphere. The Brooklyn Museum acquired some two thousand objects from the collection of Henry Abbott in 1948.

The Egyptian Department of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was established in 1902 with Albert Lythgoe as its first curator. He enlisted the services of archaeologist George Andrew Reisner in 1905, who excavated at twenty-four sites in both Egypt and Sudan on behalf of the Boston Museum. Thanks to Reisner's work, there is a wealth of fourth dynasty material from the excavations of the Giza cemeteries, including royal Menkaure statues and the painted limestone bust of Prince Ankhhaf. The holdings at the museum are also rich in material from Sudan, including Kerma, Gebel Barkal, Kurru, and Nuri, and from Meroë. The Walters Art Gallery has a large collection of Late period statuary.

Other Egyptian collections in the United States are located in Virginia, Cleveland, and Detroit. University museums with Egyptian collections include the University Museum in Philadelphia, the Oriental Institute Museum of the University of Chicago, the Robert H. Lowie Museum of the University of California, and those at Yale and Princeton universities. In Canada, the Royal Ontario Museum of Toronto has a fine Egyptian collection.

Ethical and Legal Issues in Acquisition.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Napoleon's first systematic attempt to study, collect, and record the antiquities of Egypt initiated a passion for collecting ancient Egyptian objects. Since that time, consular officials competed with one another and with private collectors and tourists for the purchase of works of art. As well, official permits to excavate and remove antiquities from the country could be acquired. An Egyptian law of 1835 prohibited the export of antiquities, but even Abbas Pasha gave antiquities as gifts, emptying the entire contents of the state repository with one generous gift to the Austrian Archduke Maximilian in 1855. A Frenchman, Auguste Mariette—ironically sent to Egypt to acquire early Christian manuscripts, but who excavated the Saqqara Serapeum—was appointed to found a national museum of Egypt in 1859. Voices such as that of the traveler and writer Amelia B. Edwards were raised to stop the wholesale pillage of antiquities. The Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF) was founded as a consequence in 1882 to introduce new ethical standards in scientific excavations. Nevertheless, excavations were often financed by the sale of finds, by subscribing museums, and by individuals, all of whom wished to acquire antiquities. Foreign museums largely ignored antiquities law, to the extent that the British Museum's E. A. Willis Budge purchased twenty-four large crates of antiquities that he illicitly transported from Egypt in 1887, through the military.

In 1952, Egypt's leader, Gamal Abdal Nasser, nationalized native art produced before 1850. Such restrictive laws, combined with the lack of remuneration for chance finds, resulted in illicit trade in Egypt. The government allowed dealers to sell their then-current stock until 1979, and some duplicate material was allowed to leave the Cairo Museum until 1974. The UNESCO accords were drafted in 1970 [and signed by the United States] to stem the illegal import, export, and transfer of cultural property. Nevertheless, these accords cannot be applied to works of art not already recorded in the country of origin or to material from sites unknown. In countries where the accords have not been signed, such as Great Britain, museums follow a voluntary code of resisting the purchase of works of art without provenance. The UNESCO accords have coincided with an increased nationalistic fervor, and with a consequent end to object distributions from excavations, so that historical provenance has become an expensive premium for museums.

In practice, because documentation has always been scarce, most unpublished material is thereby deemed to be illicit. Actions were taken in the 1970s and 1980s to ban even the publication of objects without known historical provenance. In this way, overzealous archaeologists have naively hoped to discourage collecting and to inhibit the increase in value attached to published works of art. This trend, extended in the late twentieth century to discourage conservators from treating unprovenanced works of art on the market, reveals an extreme cynicism for the condition of objects. Another, more moderate, school of thought attaches scholarly value to unprovenanced objects and, rather than suppress the information available, advocates that it should be extracted from the object. The debate is essentially one between the archaeologists and the art historians—who are accustomed to extracting useful information from objects even where archaeological context is absent.



  • Dawson, Warren R., and Eric P. Uphill. Who Was Who in Egyptology. 2d rev. ed. London, 1972.
  • Fagan, Brian M. The Rape of the Nile: Tomb Robbers, Tourists, and Archaeologists in Egypt. London, 1975.
  • Moorehead, Alan. The Blue Nile. London, 1962, repr. 1980.
  • Petrie, W. M. Flinders. Ten Years' Digging in Egypt 1881–1891. London, 1892.

Eleni Vassilika