Wilbour's Legacy - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Wilbour's Legacy August 18, 2005
by Mark Rose

A new exhibition looks at the popularization of ancient Egypt

Visitors to the Brooklyn Museum will want to have a look at a new long-term installation, "The Popularization of Ancient Egypt," which examines how Western writers and artists saw and recorded Egypt from the 1820s to the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922. This is the second installment of "Egypt Through Other Eyes: Images from the Wilbour Library of Egyptology." (The first part, "Early Travel and Exploration," covered the period from the sixteenth through the early nineteenth century.)

[image]A tomb painting in a high-end publication from the mid-nineteenth century shows the god Horus presenting the deceased pharaoh Seti I to the enthroned Osiris in the underworld. (Courtesy Wilbour Library of Egyptology, the Brooklyn Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]

The man for whom the library is named, Charles Edwin Wilbour (1833-1896), was a latecomer to Egyptology (though he was the first trained American Egyptologist). Born in Rhode Island, Wilbour attended Brown University, where he was recognized for his skill with languages. In 1854, having taught himself shorthand, he embarked on a career as a journalist, working for the New York Herald Tribune and then moving to the New York Transcript. An omnivorous scholar, he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1859, while translating several works from French into English including Victor Hugo's Les Miserables (1862) and Ernest Renan's The Life of Jesus (1864). In addition to his other occupations, Wilbour was employed by the city as a stenographer in the Bureau of Elections and the Superior Court (he appears in this role on court records, such as that of the 1861 murder trial of Charles M. Jefferds) and as Examiner of Accounts. Wilbour's decision to travel to France, where he would study Egyptology under Gaston Maspero, coincided with the 1871 fall of the ring led by political kingpin "Boss" Tweed.

Beginning in 1880, Wilbour spent winters in Egypt, occupying himself with his own research, building a collection of antiquities, and from time to time helping out Maspero, his teacher and head of the Egyptian Antiquities Service. Wilbour was highly respected by his contemporaries for his accuracy in recording inscriptions and his generosity with his knowledge, but he published just one article on his own work, an 1890 report on waterway improvements during the reign of Thutmoses III (1504-1452 B.C.). His legacy--his collection and vast library--came to the Brooklyn Museum following a request made by his widow, Charlotte Beebe Wilbour, that their children present them to an American institution. The library, some 2,500 volumes, including many once owned by Prussian archaeologist Karl Lepsius (1810-1884), was given in 1916. (Among his papers, now in Brooklyn, were numerous letters which give insights on Wilbour's character and the times in which he worked in Egypt.) The collection and an endowment followed in later bequests.

[image]Charles Edwin Wilbour (Courtesy Wilbour Library of Egyptology, the Brooklyn Museum) [LARGER IMAGE/MORE INFO]

The exhibition, curated by Deirdre E. Lawrence, principal librarian, and Mary Gow, assistant librarian, features more than 30 works, from expensive limited edition folios to mass-produced books. Some are unique items acquired by Wilbour, such as Lepsius' personal scrapbook (opened to show an advertisement for the sale of a collection of Egyptian antiquities made by Giovanni Belzoni early in the nineteenth century). Others are more recent additions to the library, such as colorful cards from cigarette packages showing scenes and artifacts from Tutankhamun's tomb.

In the nineteenth century, Egypt became more established in the popular imagination, alongside the more familiar civilizations of Greece and Rome. In the 1840s, steamship's cut the time between Southampton and Alexandria in half, to just 15 days. By 1870, Thomas Cook was booking middle-class travelers on Egyptian tours (an advertisement for these, showing a Nile boat, is included in the exhibition). For those who couldn't make the trip, the printed page offered a way to marvel at and appreciate the monuments and land of the pharaohs.

How did this come about? The exhibition's curators point to a number of factors, such as free public education in the United States, which helped create a large audience. Also critical were technical innovations in printing, from the replacement of handmade paper with machine-made paper to "stereotyping," which allowed for saving of pages of type for reprinting, making mass production of books much easier. Lithography became more readily available by the development of metal etching plates, notes Lawrence, and photo- and chromolithography were introduced as ways to illustrate plates in books and periodicals. Steel-plate engraving reached its height of use between 1820 and 1860, she says, especially in the production of single loose prints for issued in portfolios or individually for sale to collectors. Photography, invented in 1839, provided another means of capturing the ancient Nile monuments for the public.

Travel accounts, another window on ancient Egypt, proliferated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the exhibition includes several examples, including Amelia Edwards' A Thousand Miles Up the Nile (1877). Compilations of letters and diaries were also published, such as Lady Duff Gordon's Letters from Egypt (1902), here opened to an illustration of Luxor by Edward Lear. Two works on display, Samuel Manning's The Land of the Pharaohs (1875) and What we saw in Egypt (1863-1893), were published by the Religious Tract Society. Both have illustrations in which well dressed Europeans or Americans are the central figures around which are the "natives" (in the case of the latter, a "civilized" woman is cradling an infant aboard a Nile slave boat). An unexpected appearance is made by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. Known for his characteristic portrayal of women (the "Gibson Girl"), he also wrote Sketches in Egypt (1899), here opened to a page with an illustration of two young women looking at a statue of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet at Karnak's temple of Mut (a site currently being excavated by the Brooklyn Museum). John L. Stephens was perhaps the greatest reporter of archaeological remains of his time, and he appears in the exhibition with his Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea and the Holy Land (1837). Stephens followed up this work with Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia and Poland (1838). Today, he is best known for his collaborations with the illustrator Frederick Catherwood, the two groundbreaking accounts of Maya ruins, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843).

For Egypt enthusiasts with deep pockets, publishers prepared oversized volumes with magnificent color plates. Examples on display include a painting from the tomb of Seti I, originally printed by Belzoni, and here reproduced in a three volume compendium, I Monumenti dell'Egitto e della Nubia by Ippolito Baldessare in the mid-nineteenth century. Another "greatest hits" book, Samuel Binion's Ancient Egypt, or Mizraim of 1887, provided the gorgeous plate of Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park on view here.

[image]Poster advertising the exhibition of Dr. Abbott's collection (Courtesy Wilbour Library of Egyptology, the Brooklyn Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]

Exhibitions of artifacts also brought ancient Egypt to the public eye. "The Popularization of Ancient Egypt" includes an article from The Builder of 1892 describing a show of objects excavated by Flinders Petrie (it was through his work that the Brooklyn Museum acquired its first Egyptian artifact). More interesting, however, is an 1853 poster advertising the collection of Englishman Henry Abbott (1807-1859) on view at the Stuyvesant Institute in Manhattan (admission 25 cents). This collection was eventually bought by the New-York Historical Society, which later sold it to the Brooklyn Museum. Several objects illustrated on the poster are now on display in adjoining galleries. You can track them down, which is rewarding when, for example, you find that the gold ring of Shoofoo (Khufu) on the advertisement is actually a ring worn 2,000 years after Khufu's death by Neferibre, a priest in that pharaoh's mortuary cult. Beware, however, that the descriptions on the modern labels aren't always identical. One figure on the poster is described on its "The Popularization of Ancient Egypt" label as the "Statue of a kneeling falcon-headed genius in the form of the soul Pe." But the actual bronze in the main gallery is named "One of the Bau of Buto." Pe is Buto, says Lawrence, the discrepancy between the labels arising because they wanted to convey to the public what the figure represented. More on the Abbott collection can be found in the "Interest in Ancient Egypt" section of the museum's "Walt Whitman and the Arts in Brooklyn" exhibition.

The most grandiose attempts at satisfying the growing public fascination with ancient Egypt took place in the extravagant international fairs of the nineteenth century. Again, these were documented in print and reached a wide audience. On display are a satirical illustration from Punch showing the "Egyptian Court" at the Crystal Palace outside London in 1854. The court is dominated by two colossal seated figures of Ramesses II based on those at Abu Simbel, but a comic touch is provided with one of the statues giving the other a sidelong glance while various ancients (Roman, Assyrian, and others) hobnob at their feet. A re-created Luxor temple and village appear in photographs in a book about another such fair, Chicago's Columbian Exhibition of 1893.

It is not surprising that great cultural enthusiasms would intersect, and that is the case with the unusual publication printed on brown paper to give it an ancient look. Dating from around 1900, it shows, in cartoonlike fashion, Egyptians in a procession heading to the ballpark, carrying banners with bats, balls, and gloves, as a band plays (with anachronistic trombones and a sousaphone). The caption promises that the pharaoh Kimanli (a thinly disguised President McKinley) will throw out the first ball.

"The Popularization of Ancient Egypt" is not a large exhibition, but it is worth taking time to go through carefully. It will be on view for the next year. See www.brooklynmuseum.org or call 718-638-5000 for hours and directions.

Mark Rose is executive and online editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.


Jean Capart, ed., Travels in Egypt [December 1880 to May 1891]. Letters of Charles Edwin Wilbour. Brooklyn Museum: Brooklyn, 1936

Richard Fazzini, "The Brooklyn Museum's Egyptian Collection," pp. vii-xiii in Ancient Egyptian Art in the Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn Museum: Brooklyn, 1989

Deirdre Lawrence, "Walt Whitman and the Arts in Brooklyn. In Celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the Publication of Leaves of Grass."

Martha Mitchell, "Egyptology," in Encyclopedia Brunoniana

Donald Reid, Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I. University of California Press: Berkeley, 2002

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America