Soul House brings legacy, preservation and Egyptian mystery to London Petrie Museum

By Rebecca Norris | 20 January 2011
A photo of an archive full of boxes
Exhibition: Soul House, The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London, until March 25 2011

For the second time since the completion of its much-needed refurbishment in October 2010, the Petrie Museum presents Soul House, a series of digital collages by illustrator and artist Sara Bevan comprising three bodies of work which bring together the themes of legacy, preservation and Egyptian mystery.

Soul House is a term coined by the museum's original curator, William Flinders Petrie, to describe the miniature “houses” that the Ancient Egyptians would build in order to provide a place for the soul of a deceased loved one to spend to afterlife.

Bevan found a parallel between these Soul Houses and the museum's cabinets, which contain thousands of years of history, dating from pre-dynastic Egypt to modern Islamic times.

Some of the museum furniture dates back to the late 19th century, when the museum was first entrusted to Flinders Petrie. They continue to stand as a monument to him and demonstrate his passion after his death. The cabinets themselves are Soul Houses.

The exhibition is situated on a wall directly behind the main museum pieces so that visitors can glance over their shoulders at the huddles of Petrie's cabinets as they view the images.

The collages feature Bevan's interpretation of the museum furniture as “homes for souls” in the form of stylised illustrations of objects clearly derived from the cabinets, but with the homely additions of roofs and windows.

This image is placed on top of photographs of the artefacts, warping their scale and playing with the contrast between Flinders Petrie's innovative displays of everyday objects and preconceptions of what you expect to see in an Egyptology museum.

Bevan also demonstrates her passion for the Petrie by including works which feature famous Egyptian myths occurring within the space of the museum.

Bevan brings to life the Petrie's eerie, authentic atmosphere, which is enhanced by the antique looking cabinets and haphazard layout. However, the current setting is impractical for the storage of such valuable pieces and does nothing to aid in the preservation process. In order to make the museum easier to manage as a visitor attraction and research facility, the Petrie is scheduled for a move sometime in the near future.

Like all projects relying on institutional funding at the moment, the move is undergoing scheduling issues. However the Petrie's future home is certain to be a more modern setting.

The old museum furniture will form an exhibit its own right when the move eventually takes place. Combining the objects themselves with the history of their discovery seems a suitable twist for a museum famous for being a bit different.

“The Petrie is full of a unique character,” observes Bevan. “It was this magic that I was trying to reflect in the Soul House project.”

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