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Wondrous Curiosities

Ancient Egypt at the British Museum

Published with the assistance of the Getty Foundation

When the British Museum opened its doors more than two centuries ago, scores of visitors waited eagerly outside for a first glimpse of ancient relics from Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Even today, in this age of satellite television and high-speed Internet access, museums maintain their unique allure, continuing to play a vital role in connecting us with little-known terrains and the deep mysteries of our historical past. That’s because, as Stephanie Moser argues in Wondrous Curiosities, museum displays don’t just transmit knowledge—they actually create it. 

Based on her exploration of the British Museum’s world-famous collection of Egyptian antiquities, this pioneering study reveals the powerful role of museums in shaping our understanding of science, culture, and history. Drawing on guidebooks and archival documents, Moser demonstrates that this British exhibition of ancient Egyptian artifacts was central to the way we came to define the remarkable society that produced them. And she also reveals the specific strategies—such as using pattern and symmetry, juxtaposing different types of objects, and singling out particular items—that the British Museum and others used, and still use, in representing the past. With a wealth of illustrations and a detailed account of how the museum acquired and displayed its Egyptian collections, Wondrous Curiosities will fascinate curators and scholars of British history, Egyptology, art history, archaeology, and the history of science.

360 pages | 13 color plates, 99 halftones | 7 x 10 | © 2006


History: Ancient and Classical History, European History

History of Science


“Stephanie Moser finds that, far from being passive receptacles of immutable facts, the British Museum’s Egyptian collections and by extension museums in general are dynamic generators of new forms of accepted wisdom with a potency exceeding that of the written texts that more generally claim our attention. As detailed history, Professor Moser’s text is exemplary, but its many lessons, carefully crafted and thoughtfully presented, have more universal applications that will ensure its long-term importance in the fields of visual and material culture, and in understanding the broader sociological contributions—still too little acknowledged—that museums continue to make to our understanding of societies removed from our own by time, space, or cultural identity.”<Arthur MacGregor, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford>

Arthur MacGregor, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

“Incisive and timely, this revolutionary project offers a reliable source for rediscovering our own various mental origins in the museum as a tangible public square. Stephanie Moser reveals here that it was not Egyptologists or trustees, but rather the direct encounter with Egyptian objects, that taught people in metropolitan centers of colonialism what Egypt had achieved. Embracing three central approaches explored by previous museum historians, Moser mines museum archives and contemporary eighteenth- and nineteenth-century accounts to uncover the multiple dimensions of collection, display, and—least researched and most fascinating—reception by museumgoers from the founding of the British Museum in 1753 to the late-nineteenth-century dawn of a more institutional Egyptology. Her triple approach offers an exuberant revelation on every front of this interconnected story.”<Stephen Quirke, Petrie Museum, University College London>

Stephen Quirke, Petrie Museum, University College London

“Original and insightful, Wondrous Curiosities is extraordinary in the scope of materials it unearths and discusses. Moser’s use of primary sources—including guidebooks, archival documents, and descriptions of all kinds—is the soul of the book.”<Brian Curran, Penn State University>

Brian Curran, Penn State University

"The British Museum has played a huge role in constructing the world’s view of Egypt’s past. Stephanie Moser shows how the museum came to define Egyptian culture by the way it presented objects to the public. This fascinating exploration looks at the history of some of its iconic treasures and how they ended up at the museum."—New Scientist

New Scientist

“Moser makes a cogent and compelling case that, throughout its early history, the British Museum’s attitude to its ancient Egyptian artifacts reinforced one basic message: that the story of the ancient world was one of a rise from primitive beginnings in Egypt to the classical perfection of ancient Greece. . . . You’ll never walk through the Great Court in quite the same way again.”

Nicola Smyth | Independent on Sunday

"Rich with images and illustrations, [Wondrous Curiosities] examines how different institutions exhibit antiquities and concludes by discussing museums’ overall contribution to what we now know about ancient Egypt."

Museum News

"This is a substantial, well illustrated book that adds an important dimension to David Wilson’s 2002 history of the museum, and will be imitated with profit."

British Archaeology

"The work presents a wealth of archival and literary sources to the researcher. . . . Moser’s work will remain important to the study of the history of Egyptology for years to come."

Andrew Bednarski | Egyptian Archaeology

"This opulently illustrated volume is a natural for cofee tables everywhere. Stephanie Moser combines labour of love with love of labour, providing a meticulously documented good story fortified with agreeably terse, primary source-based notes."

Barry Baldwin | Fortean Times

"Moser sets out to explore the extent to which the Egyptian displays at the British Museum influenced the early understanding of the culture and thus considers the role of museums and popular culture. As a museum curator, I found this book provided an appealing insight into the development of displays."

Sally-Ann Ashton | International History Review

"In her meticulously researched and cogently argued Wondrous Curiosities, Stephanie Moser demonstrates how popular audiences, museum trustees, art critics, and others with little knowledge of ancient Egypt all contributed . . . to the creation of representations that still influence our perceptions today."

Donald Malcolm Reid | Current Anthropology

"An important contribution to . . . the story of how the representation of ancient Egypt has been and continues to be created. . . . The depth of scholarship . . . is echoed in the sumptuous images and illustrations. The book is certainly essential for museologists, Egyptologists, and archaeologists and it will, I am sure, be valued for its interdisciplinary perspectives."

Beverley Butler | Cambridge Artchaeological Journal

"Moser’s impeccably-illustrated and fully-researched account tells one important chapter in the long-standing relationship between the modern West and Ancient Egypt. . . . [Her] archaeological expedition is a success."

Peter H. Hoffenberg | Muse

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: Museum Display, Representation, and Ancient Egypt
1. To Pleasurably Serve the Mind: The Didactic Study Collections of the Early Modern Period
2. Wondrous Curiosities: The Display of the Sloane Collection of Egyptian Antiquities, 1759
3. Colossal Monstrosities: The Townley Installation of Egyptian Antiquities, 1808
4. Monumental Masterpieces: The Exhibition of the Collection of Henry Salt, 1823
5. Accessible Oddities: The New Smirke Gallery and Egyptian Room, 1834 and 1837 
6. Historical Documents: The Extended Smirke Galleries, 1854–1880
Conclusion: Something for Everyone: The British Museum and Its Creation of
Ancient Egypt
Appendix: Period Dates and Dynasties 
Works Cited 
Figure Credits 


Association of American Publishers: PROSE Book Award

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