A collection of ancient Egyptian amulets acquired by Florence Nightingale in the winter of 1849 when she went on an adventurous Egyptian holiday are going on display for the first time – and the curator at the World Museum in is rather more impressed by them than the Lady of the Lamp herself was.
Five years before she sailed to Scutari, Istanbul, during the Crimean war, Nightingale travelled to at a time when mass tourism there was in its infancy. She wrote vivid letters home to her older sister, Parthenope, who later published them, but described her little amulets as “rubbish”.
They will go on display for the first time when the , the largest in the UK after the British Museum, opens to the public on 28 April.
Ashley Cooke, the senior curator of antiquities at the World Museum, is delighted to display her amulets at last. They included four to the protective goddess Taweret, particularly cherished by women during childbirth.
“What she brought back is fascinating to us, but I think she expected to be offered ancient treasures and she was very disappointed with what was available,” he said. “Ironically we are displaying some of the objects which she did rate and was very pleased at getting hold of – which have turned out, alas, to be fakes.”
Nightingale wrote to her sister: “As for the Egyptian rubbish, you may do just what you like with it, keep it or give it away. There is nothing that reminds me of what I have seen, nothing that savours of my Karnak [temple complex] except the bronze dog, the brick seals which sealed the tombs at Thebes, and the four little seals in the light box … you don’t know how difficult it is to get anything at Cairo – for I know you will think, and very truly, what I have sent home very shabby.”
In a later letter she mentioned the most precious of her seals again: “I possess an antiquity though which I really do value, an official seal, of the time of Rameses the Great, my hero, with his cartouche upon it. An undoubted reality. Who will dare to open letters sealed with the great Rameses’ own seal?”
Cooke said kindly: “Unfortunately the four little seals are all forgeries but at least they gave her some pleasure and they are quite pretty little things.”
The amulets were donated to the museum by a relative of Nightingale’s, and are going on display in the first major redisplay since the original gallery and much of the collection were destroyed by a German bomb in the second world war.
Cooke reveres one of his predecessors as curator, the formidable Miss Elaine Tankard, who in 1941 collapsed in shock when she learned that the flames she could see from across on the Wirral were from the museum. After the war she set about rebuilding the collection, of which more than 3,000 objects were destroyed, and by the time she retired she had added 10,000 more.
Tankard toured the country collecting from many regional museums which were redefining their displays. Cooke wonders if some curators felt a little threatened when Tankard came to call. She visited Norwich museum and after a day there wrote back to Liverpool that she was staying on, as there were many more good things she thought she could get from them: her prizes included ancient Egyptian gold rings once owned by the novelist H Rider Haggard. They are back on display in the new gallery, including one which Cooke assumed was broken in antiquity, until he read in Haggard’s diaries that he had snagged it while wearing it in a London taxi.
The new mummy room in the gallery, always the most popular display in the entire museum, will include four which have not been on display since 1941. The mummies include four women, one a temple musician, a Nubian woman buried in her bedsheets, a temple door keeper, and a five-year-old boy.
- Liverpool World Museum’s gallery Ancient Egypt: A Journey Through Time opens on 28 April