Monthly Archives: August, 2015

Saving Sekhemka

Sekhemka has traveled far.

For centuries, he stood over the tomb of his namesake, the great scribe of Ancient Egypt, at the necropolis at Saqqara near Cairo. At some point, looters took him from his master’s grave and set him into the growing network of collectors of all things Egyptian. Here his path vanishes for a while. Some believe he went north to the Ottoman Empire. Others think he stayed closer to home.

Sekhemka, 1950s. He was on display in the Northampton Museum from the 1870s to 2012.

Sekhemka, 1950s. He was on display in the Northampton Museum from the 1870s to 2012.

Around 1851, he ended up in the collection of Spencer Joshua Alwyne Compton, 2nd Marquess of Northampton. Antiquarian, geologist, man of letters, Lord Northampton traveled through Egypt in 1850-51, collecting objects from dealers and transporting them home to the Midlands of England. He never got to enjoy them, dying the year after his return. His family, honoring his wishes as a patron of the arts and sciences, donated his collection, including Sekhemka, to the local museum in Northampton, on the condition that they remain on display and free of charge.

This was Sekhemka’s home for the next century. He was such a familiar face that, after a while, he stopped exciting curatorial interest. He was just sort of there in his case, his miniaturized wife Sitmerit crouched patiently by his leg.

Then, in 2012, an appraiser valued Sekhemka at £2 million. And suddenly, he was very, very popular.

With austerity measures pinching local budgets and a long list of projects they couldn’t fund, the Northampton Borough Council saw the quick sale of this object as the answer to their woes.

Sekhemka was scuttled into storage while the council opened negotiations with the current Lord Northampton, who technically owned the item as part of the family estate. Public pressure delayed the sale for two years. On the promise of a 55-45 split in proceeds, Lord Northampton agreed to the deal. Sekhemka made yet another journey, this time Christies in London.

In July 2014, it sold to an anonymous buyer for a record-setting £15,762,500. While they’ve not released exact figures, it’s believed Lord Northampton made around £7 million from the sale, and Northampton Borough Council around £6 million.

A year later, Sekhemka sits in limbo, a source of international controversy.

Museums have a duty to hold their collections in trust for society,” says David Fleming, chair of the Museums Association Ethics Committee. “They should not treat their collections as assets to be monetized for short-term gain.”

Almost everything about the sale violated professional norms, and the profession has struck back hard: Arts Council England stripped the museum of its accreditation and the Museums Association banned them for a period of five years. These actions effectively block them from applying for heritage grants. “In the long run,” writes archeologist Mike Pitts, “the sale could cost them more in lost grants than it made in the auction room.”

Now, the focus is on saving Sekhemka from vanishing entirely. The name of the buyer is unknown, but most sources say it was purchased by a Qatari billionaire for a private collection.

Action groups in both Northampton and in Egypt have been working to try to keep the statue in England or have it repatriated home to Egypt. UNESCO and the International Council of Museums have also joined the lobbying efforts.

The unifying principle is simple: cultural heritage belongs to humanity. It’s better for a work of art to sit in a small-town museum than to become an ornament in some oligarch’s bathroom. Or wherever billionaires put their 4,500-year old objets d’art.

The British government has been receptive to their pleas. Just this week, it extended an export ban on the statue, giving parties another opportunity to try to come up with the funds to buy the statue and keep it in-country. If a serious offer emerges by midday on 28 August, the ban could be extended to March 2016.

It’s a longshot. Not too many people, or organizations for that matter, have £16 million laying around. Plus, says Alistair Brown of the Museums Association, “it still seems unlikely that any public body will want to be seen to reward Northampton Borough Council by being involved in the purchase of the statue.”

But there is still a chance. Any object that last for more than 4,000 years is pretty tough, and Sekhemka may have a few tricks left up his carved sleeve.

The day before he was sold at auction in London in 2014, a huge fire broke out Lord Northampton’s Castle Ashby, the family’s home for 15 generations. The main house was spared and nobody was injured. The timing caught everyone’s attention. Is there a “Curse of Sekhamka”? Probably not. But maybe it was a sign the gods were speaking.

The Noble Face (Image: BBC)

The Noble Face
(Image: BBC)

Is the Theory of Shakespeare As Pot Aficionado Mostly Stems and Seeds?

The Internet has a long memory, but a short attention span.

Over the last few days, news sites across the globe have published stories about the seemingly new revelations that William Shakespeare may have smoked pot. These stories have flowed out of a piece published in The Independent over the weekend by Dr. Francis Thackeray, chair of the Evolutionary Studies Institute at South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand.

In his essay, Thackeray talks about a study he conducted of clay pipe fragments found in the garden of Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon. Under gas chromatography and a mass spectrometer, several of the samples showed traces of cannabis. Combined with what Thackeray interprets as veiled references to cannabis in Sonnet 76 (“invention in a noted weed”), indicates to him possible proof that Shakespeare “preferred cannabis as a weed with mind-stimulating properties.”

It’s understandable why the story has gone viral: between our growing comfort with marijuana use and the sense that all great artists are badass rebels who use drugs and alcohol as fuel for their mental fire, it’s the perfect story.

In fact, it was the perfect story when Thackeray first published these findings in 2001. And again in 2011, when he was trying to win approval to exhume Shakespeare and his family to test their hair and nails for cannabis use. Shakespeare, Stoner is always news.


But once the subversive thrill and munchies jokes run their course, how much is there to Thackeray’s theory?

He and his colleagues formulated their hypothesis about Shakespeare’s cannabis use in the late 1990s based primarily on Sonnet 76. By 2000, they had won permission to test pipe fragments collected from sites around Stratford-upon-Avon, including the “New Place,” the home Shakespeare and family shared with son-in-law Dr. John Hall. All fragments shared the appearance of clay pipes popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime, although they were not specifically dated.

Chemical analysis turned up a dazzling array of compounds: nicotine, myristic acid, cocaine, quinoline, camphor, pyrene, phenol, toluene, borneol, cinnamaldehyde, vanillin. “Unequivocal evidence for *Cannabis* have not been obtained,” the report continued, but traces of chemicals were “suggestive” of it. They were convinced it was there, even if they couldn’t clearly see it.

Their analysis expanded the picture of Elizabethan smoking habits. Nicotiana, tobacco flowing in from the New World, was prevalent. Camphor and other compounds were added to mask the acrid smell. That was expected.

But there were some genuine surprises: the presence of cocaine showed that they were smoking coca leaves. Myristic acid, from the nutmeg family, has known hallucinogenic properties. Quinoline comes from the South American Cinchona plant and was used by the Spanish to treat malaria, but this was the first proof it was also used by the English. The presence of cannabis, by comparison, was relatively unsurprising. Hemp was a major crop in England, and cannabis satvia abounded. It had been in England since Anglo-Saxon times; people surely knew what it did.

Thackeray admits that none of this puts the bong in Shakespeare’s mouth. Other people lived in that household during the period these pipe would have been in use.

His textual evidence is equally slim. Scholars generally agree Sonnet 76 is a lament that his writing has become repetitive and lacks innovation, making him feel incapable of speaking his love. They interpret the line “And keep invention in a noted weed” as meaning “keeping creativity in familiar clothing,” staying within his literary comfort zone. His use of “weed” or “weeds’ almost always referred to clothing, and while Shakespeare was ahead of his time, “weed” as an analog for marijuana didn’t enter the English lexicon until over 300 years after his death.

“Shakespeare never mentions pipes, tobacco, or smoking anywhere in his poems or plays, in contrast with Edmund Spenser and other writers of the period,” scholar Stephen Greenblatt told Harvard Magazine the first time this story broke back in 2001. “Alcohol is a much more likely stimulant for Shakespeare’s imagination, and even that is probably unimportant.”

Many historians would shy away from hanging so much on so little evidence. But Thackeray is a paleoanthropologist by trade, used to extrapolating the origins of humanity from fragmentary data. It’s not surprising he would request access to Shakespeare’s remains in the belief that the truth is there in hair and bone, and it has to be a source of frustration to be denied access. The Church of England is unlikely to allow the Bard’s bones to be disrupted in the name of science.

Which is how Shakespeare would want it. The inscription carved on his tombstone seems eerily like a shout-out to the Thackerays of the world:

Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.



Hit the Road, Jack: Jack the Ripper Museum Hits Some Bumps On the Way To Opening Day

The planned opening of the Jack the Ripper Museum in London’s East End was delayed this week as more than 200 protestors showed up on what was to be its inaugural day. Meanwhile, the story around the development of the project, originally proposed as a women’s history museum, grows curiouser and curiouser.

Architects at Waugh Thisleton now say they were “duped” by museum owner Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe.

“They came to us and said they had no money but that this is a real heart-felt project,” director Andrew Waugh tells Building Design. “It is incredibly important to celebrate women in politics in the East End. We really ran with it….It’s a complicated scheme as we had to design a museum with full disabled access in what essentially is a terraced house in east London.”

Their plans were submitted the Tower Hamlets Council in July 2014 and approved in October. Waugh Thisleton did not hear from Palmer-Edgecumbe again and they were as surprised as the Tower Hamlets Council to see what emerged when the wrapping came off the Cable Street facade. It is, Waugh says, “salacious, misogynist rubbish.”

Was there ever going to be a Museum of Women?


But Palmer-Edgecumbe incorporated Jack the Ripper Museum Limited in March 2012 and dissolved it March 2014, and a deleted (but cached) page from the new museum’s website says he had wanted to do this since 2008, when he served as Chairman of the Museum of the Docklands during their Ripper exhibition. It was clearly not an idea that just spontaneously came to him as the project developed.

In December 2014, a group of items belonging to London Police Constable Edward Watkins, the officer who discovered the body of victim Catherine Eddowes on the night of September 29, 1888, were set for auction. Watkins’ truncheon, handcuffs, notepad, and whistle were expected to bring in about £2,400. Instead, they went for an eye-popping £17,700. The buyer was anonymous, but auction officials at the time told the BBC that the individual planned to put the items in a private museum.

These four items seem to form the core of the new attraction: Watkins’ discovery of Catherine Eddowes is a waxwork tableau in one exhibit and the items themselves are displayed in the “Police Room.” A pretty good showing for a man whose sole contribution to the case was finding the body and testifying to the discovery at the coroner’s inquest.

The Ripperology community was as surprised by the museum as everyone else. Given the exhibit focus on Catherine Eddowes, many first thought that this had to be the work of Russell Edwards, who last year claimed to have solved the mystery through DNA testings of Eddowes’ shawl, worn on the night of her murder. (The DNA sequencing has since been proven faulty.) Palmer-Edgecumbe is unknown in Ripper circles.

Clips from news reports filmed inside the museum have raised some eyebrows among longtime Ripperologists. There’s little evidence, for example, to support the claim that they have “the actual whistle Police Constable Watkins blew to call for help,” or indeed that Watkins even blew his whistle that night.

More worryingly, a photo identified as victim Mary Jane Kelly is actually a portrait of a woman one historian (wrongly) accused of being the Ripper – a rather large curatorial error for a museum holding itself out as the first to tell the story of the Ripper victims.

The photo said to be Ripper victim Mary Jane Kelly is actually a photo of Ripper suspect Lizzie Williams. WIlliams was named - without much evidence - as the Ripper in a 2012 book.

The photo said to be Ripper victim Mary Jane Kelly is actually a photo of Ripper suspect Lizzie Williams. Williams was named – without much evidence – as the Ripper in a 2012 book.

Palmer-Edgecumbe remains implacable in the face of criticism. He didn’t mislead anyone. “The full name of the museum is ‘The Jack the Ripper and the History of Women in East London’,” he told website Londonist. “The frontage is not finished and still in the planning stage.”

The museum will open quietly as the fuss dies down. If it dies down.

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