Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The Petrie Museum and old-school goodness

I don't like to do 'reviews' of museums because a) it makes me feel like a student again and b) I end up picking faults, which I hate doing as (any museum curator will tell you) all galleries are full of little foibles and errors that the curator wants to find time (or money) to put right. I'd never want to take the moral high ground and start pointing fingers at my fellow curators for any such glitches in their galleries.

But the museum I want to talk about is one that I am going to pick some faults with, because somehow they are exactly what make the place special - the Petrie Museum - which I managed to pop into on a recent visit to London.

The Petrie Museum is the UCL (University College London) museum of Egyptology, named for the great pioneering archaeologist Sir William Flinders Petrie whose excavations provided the museum with the bulk of its collections.

The displays are unashamedly old fashioned, and without wanting to insult anyone responsible for them, a little ramshackle. Objects can be found crammed into old wooden cases with barely a gap between them and turned at different angles on shelves that are too small. Labels are sometimes handwritten, sometimes entirely illegible as they are covered by objects or packaging and they are often wonky. Even when you can read them, the information is usually brief, technical, and of little use to the casual visitor.

Although these would often be fatal errors in a modern museum, in the Petrie they somehow seem to simply add to the atmosphere of a place which is packed full of wonderful treasures.  They portray a sense of charm and character - two of the hardest qualities for a museum to possess in my opinion.

The idea behind the labelling is of course to retain a sense of exploration - that feeling of the early archaeologists like Petrie making new discoveries and trying to understand and categorise their finds.  The museum actually feels like if you came back a month later, some exciting new find would have caused everything to be re-organised and re-interpreted.

So if you happen to be in London and looking for somewhere new to visit, head along to the Petrie Museum and revel in some unashamedly old fashioned, dusty shelved and vaguely eccentric museum loveliness.  After all, how can anyone fail to become fond of a museum that openly offers torches to visitors because the lighting isn’t very good?


  1. I know what you mean. It's a bit like looking in a second hand shop, which I enjoy, hoping to find something special. Great report.

  2. Many thanks. I like the second hand shop analogy, though I'm not sure how hard they haggle if you try to buy anything...