Introducing “Tea with the Sphinx”

By Ellie Dobson & Nicola Tonks (Organising Committee)

The third annual Birmingham Egyptology Symposium was held at the University of Birmingham in February 2016. The event was entitled ‘Ancient Egypt: Looking Out and Looking In’, and brought together Egyptologists at the University and Birmingham and elsewhere in order to share their research. Dr David Gange, a historian at the University of Birmingham whose work on the nineteenth-century development of disciplines such as Egyptology and archaeology is well known, gave the keynote address. A number of Dr Gange’s students were in attendance, and in the course of one particular panel, where the speakers hailed from historical backgrounds rather than Egyptology, it became apparent that the questions which historians had brought to the symposium were different from those raised by Egyptologists.
This particular panel left us with more questions than answers about the ways in which ancient Egypt has been consumed, used, and appropriated by the British throughout history. While discussing the questions we had we light-heartedly suggested that perhaps we should organise our own conference seeking to address these questions:

*Why has Egypt succeeded in capturing the popular imagination in ways that no other ancient civilisation has?

*How did ancient Egypt work its way into popular British culture?

*Why do some academics deny the importance of reception history?

*Does the cultural significance of ancient Egypt in Western culture have an impact on archaeology?

In the course of our discussions, we realised that individually, as scholars of English Literature and History, we could not seek to reveal the complexities of these questions on our own, and a conference that sought to debate these issues was sorely needed. It also seemed timely: with the centenary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb approaching, we decided that this was a pertinent moment to seek answers to these questions. “Tea with the Sphinx” was born.

Furthermore, with suggestions from eminent Egyptologists that there might be further undiscovered chambers blocked up in the tomb, and with the last discovery sending out a wave of Egyptomania across the world, we are, perhaps, on the brink of the second greatest Egyptological discovery since the original tomb excavation. It is entirely possible that another wave of Egyptomania is imminent. Thus, seeking to explore the ways in which the imagery, iconography and culture of the ancient Egyptians was consumed by British people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries does not only begin to answer some of the questions we have as scholars, but could also pave the way to understanding future iterations of Egyptomania.

The papers at “Tea with the Sphinx” focus predominantly upon the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but extend back to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and mid-eighteenth-century Masonic rites, and forward through to girls’ comics of the 1970s. It aims to be a truly interdisciplinary conference with historians, Egyptologists and literary scholars giving papers. Panels take as their focus a variety of themes, approaches, and genres, from travel literature, to the material culture of death, to the ways in which mummies have been integrated into the British cultural sphere. Together, we hope to uncover some of the ways in which ancient Egypt has captured the imagination of the modern British culture.

We hope the conference reflects Past & Present’s belief that history should be accessible and interesting to a wide audience. The conference is not just aimed at academics, but also seeks to engage museum professionals, students and the general public. In addition to the conference, social events are being organised to take the conversations out of the academy into a less formal setting to encourage conference delegates to network and share ideas. A film screening of Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932) starring Boris Karloff has been scheduled for the evening before the conference opens to set the tone of the event and provide a starting point for conversation. There will also be an exhibition of photography during lunch on the second day of the conference at the Barber Institute of Fine Art, curated by Dr. Lucie Ryzova, Lecturer in Middle East History at the University of Birmingham (and a Past & Present Editorial Board Member). It is our aim that these events, in conjunction with the papers given during the conference, will facilitate and further debate about the ways in which ancient Egypt is interpreted in the modern imagination.

Tea with the Sphinx will take place between 8:00 on 23rd September and 22:00 on 24th September 2016 at the University of Birmingham. Registration is open until 18th September and costs £28.
The screening of The Mummy takes place from 19:30 at the University of Birmingham’s Westmere House. Tickets are free, but limited, so registration is essential.

"Tea with the Sphinx" "Mummy" screening poster (copyright Tea with the Sphinx)

“Tea with the Sphinx” “Mummy” screening poster (copyright Tea with the Sphinx)

Past & Present is pleased to support this event and others like it. We welcome funding applications from historians of all fields and time periods at any stage in their career. More information can be found here.

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