Displaying Egypt: Archaeology, Spectacle, and the Museum in the Early Nineteenth Century
To capture something of how Egypt appeared to the early nineteenth century traveller, one could do worse than stand in the shoes of Giovanni Battista Belzoni when he caught his first sight of the ruins of Thebes. Faced with a “forest-like assemblage of ruins of temples, columns, obelisks, colossi, sphynxes, portals, and an endless number of other astonishing objects,” Belzoni remarks that it is impossible to describe, and “absolutely impossible to imagine the scene displayed, without seeing it” (108). Belzoni’s amazement reflected and in turn shaped a passionate interest in Egypt, or more particularly Egyptian antiquity, that became a prominent feature of early nineteenth century cultural life. The term ‘Egyptomania’ is frequently applied to that fascination, which found expression in a variety of ways: in increased activity around the excavation and collecting of antiquities, in the growing collections of the British Museum, in Egyptian-inspired architecture and design, in the work of writers and artists, and in the way Egypt featured in forms of popular visual spectacle, such as the theatre, the panoramas of Barker and Burford, and later, in moving panoramas that simulated the experience of travelling up the Nile.