The Petrie Museum: Ancient Egypt Without The British Museum Crowds

M@
By M@
The Petrie Museum: Ancient Egypt Without The British Museum Crowds
Golden head in Petrie Museum

"Don't refuse the big things, but go where the small thing is."

That's a quote from the Egyptologist William Flinders Petrie on the entrance steps to his namesake museum. And it's a pretty neat summary of what you'll find inside.

UCL's Petrie Museum in the heart of Bloomsbury is a spellbinding collection of artefacts from ancient Egypt (and some from Sudan). Here, you'll find the stelas, mummy cases and canopic jars you might see round the corner at the British Museum, but without the crushing crowds. In many ways, the collection here is more interesting than that found at the bigger museum. Its secret is to go small.

Shabtis at the Petrie Museum
A colourful collection of shabtis, tiny figurines placed in burial sites in the expectation that they'd work for their master in the afterlife

Most of the collection is drawn from the everyday items of ancient Egypt. Jewellery, beads, combs and, most affectingly, children's toys are the name of the game here. We glance on a pair of tiny shoes and imagine them once encompassing the feet of a child, or contemplate a string of beads, precious to somebody who died thousands of years ago. It's a much more human display than the monolithic sculptures that dominate the British Museum's galleries.

Artefacts at the Petrie Museum
Some of the trinkets are very colourful. I'm sure I've seen things like that yellow Phoenician head fall out of my children's Kinder eggs.

The great antiquity hits you, too. There's pottery here that was shaped over 6,000 years ago. Imagine, for a moment, going back to Shakespeare's time. That feels pretty ancient. But these bowls and plates were created 14 times further into the past. The mind boggles at such incomprehensible spans of time.

Shelving at the Petrie Museum

The museum's been here since 1892, when it was set up as a teaching resource thanks to the munificence of writer Amelia Edwards. William Flinders Petrie was appointed as its first curator, and it was he who developed it into the collection we see today.

The Petrie remains a teaching collection, so the labelling and interpretation isn't always customised for a general audience. Many labels are dated according to Dynasty rather than year, so it helps to have a guide to the Pharaohs to hand. But you don't need any great knowledge of the era to appreciate many of the displays. Take this reconstructed bead dress, for example. It wouldn't look out of place on a Hollywood red carpet, but it was last worn 225 generations ago.

A string and bead dress at the Petrie Museum
A bead-net dress. Somebody danced in this more than 4,000 years ago.
A female figure preys to some giant ears
Ear worship... we hear it was a thing in ancient Egypt

The museum seems keen to address the many thorny issues that collections like this must face up to. Should these antiquities be repatriated? How should human remains be respectfully displayed? Is it still OK to call this place the Petrie Museum, given that its namesake was an enthusiastic enabler of eugenics research? These questions are addressed in an introductory display, but not fully answered. Personally, I think they should ditch the Petrie name and instead celebrate the founder, Amelia Edwards. Edwards sounds like a remarkable person, sometimes called the Godmother of Egyptology. The museum would not exist without her. It seems like an obvious move to rename it after her, and an easy PR win, too.

A carved head at the Petrie Museum

Whatever we should call it, this under-celebrated museum deserves to be better known. Consider popping in next time you're wandering through Bloomsbury with an hour or so to use.  

The Petrie Museum can be found on Malet Place, the pedestrian street that leads into UCL's main campus. It's is free to visit, with no booking system. Open Tue-Fri (1pm-5pm) and Sat (11am-5pm).

Last Updated 14 February 2024

Continued below.