The 2002 Conference

The UMAC 2002 Conference was held in Sydney and Canberra in Australia from Sunday 29 September - Friday 4 October 2002.

The title and theme of the conference was: Exposing and Exploiting the Distinct Character of University Museums and Collections.

Sir Charles Nicholson and the Legacy of a Benefactor

Dr Karin Sowada

In 1860, the University of Sydney received perhaps one of the most significant collections ever received by a university in Australia. A total of over 400 Egyptian artefacts were donated by Sir Charles Nicholson, an early collector, scholar, philanthropist and statesman in Sydney town and the colony of New South Wales. His donation of ancient Egyptian artefacts became the basis of the Nicholson Museum at Sydney University, now the country's most important collection of ancient art and artefacts from the Eastern Mediterranean.

In time, the Department of Archaeology was developed around the collection. A number of internationally distinguished scholars have either held the Museum's curatorship, departmental teaching positions, or been trained by its academic staff. Today, Archaeology, for which the Nicholson Museum collection is the cornerstone, remains one of the most vibrant and innovative departments in the Faculty of Arts, with major research projects in Iran, Central Asia, Jordan, South Italy, Cyprus and the Greek Islands.

The University owes a great deal to the foresight of Sir Charles. However, not only did he donate antiquities, paintings, tapestries and other objet d'art, but he is counted as one of the University's founders. As Speaker of the NSW Legislative Council from 1846 to 1856, he oversaw the foundation of an egalitarian institution with a wide liberal educational brief that was not bound by the strictures of class, wealth and religion that was so common in Britain. It is largely to Nicholson's lobbying that the University owes the magnificent Great Hall and other trappings so reminiscent of the Oxbridge universities of his homeland. He later went on to become the University of Sydney's Vice Provost, then Provost or Chanceller, a position he held from 1854 until his departure from Australia in 1862.

But let me return to the ancient world. Nicholson's donation of antiquities to the University is important from a number of perspectives. Firstly, it represents the fruits of trips to Egypt that were common amongst the European educated and landed classes in the 19th century. We know little about his trips, as all Nicholson's papers and diaries were lost in a fire that destroyed his home in Tottenbridge, England, in 1899. The meagre records that do exist indicate that he visited Egypt in 1856/7 and again during his final voyage home from Australia in 1862. During these trips he consorted with other expatriate scholars and travellers, visiting sites and inspecting early archaeological work.

That Nicholson's interest was not just collecting for its own sake, but had a strong scientific and scholarly bent is illustrated by a relationship he established with Joseph Hekekeyan Bey, a man of Turkish origin who was conducting excavations at the ancient city of Memphis, just south of Cairo in 1855-6. Nicholson evidently visited Hekekeyan's work in the vicinity of this monumental statue of Rameses II and acquired an important inscribed limestone block from him, which is now in the Museum's collection. It is the only known remaining block from a temple to the Aten at Memphis, which was constructed by the so-called heretic king Akhenaton in ca 1340 BC.

Back in England, Nicholson continued his acquaintance and correspondence with Hekekeyan, who sent him what may be the earliest drawn archaeological section from Egypt, showing where the block had been found. Hekekeyan was but one of many scholars and archaeologists in his London circle, which included Dr Henry Layard, famous for his discoveries at Nineveh, curators and Trustees of the British Museum, and later the famous archaeologist Flinders Petrie and those who founded the Egypt Exploration Society.

Little is known about Nicholson's other collecting activities in Egypt, or even indeed the sites he visited. The provenance of many of his objects is only now being established thanks to research funded by a University Sesquicentenary Grant. We know that he purchased some objects from dealers in Cairo, including the well-known Massara brothers. We have also established that many of the objects he purchased came from the region of modern Luxor, the site of many of Egypt's most splendid tombs and temples of the New Kingdom and later. Many of the objects bear the hallmarks of ancient Thebes in their construction, style of carving and decoration.

In all likelihood he purchased the pieces from dealers and more informal sources. In the few written records that exist, Nicholson makes mention of having purchased a fragment of a coffin (R77) from a 'local Arab' who probably had a personal cachette of objects. This and related fragments, R78 and R82 actually fit together; the original object was sawn into three pieces to maximise the profits from separate sales. Some pieces, like a fragment of red granite said to come from the obelisk at Karnak, were probably picked up from the ground as Nicholson walked over the precincts of the great temple. I half suspect that if we took a cast of our piece to the Karnak temple that the join could be found. It is also possible that Nicholson, like many Europeans, tried his hand at excavating, thus uncovering objects for himself. However, it is our impression from study of the collection that this is not a random sample of the kind one is likely to find on an archaeological dig.

The same attempt of locals to maximise profits is probably the reason why Nicholson purchased the mummy of a man in a woman's coffin, although it is unlikely that he would have been aware of this at the time. Recent DNA testing on a bone sample from this mummy, part of research for the Nicholson Museum Egyptian Mummy Project, revealed that either the dealers who sold this ensemble simply rustled up a spare mummy to put in an empty coffin, or it is evidence of ancient re-use of the coffin for another occupant, a practice not unknown in ancient times. Nor could Nicholson have been aware that some 140 years after donating a granodiorite torso of a goddess dating to the time of Tutankhamun, that the joining head would be discovered in the Egyptian Museum in by an American art historian. The joining of our original torso with a fascimile copy of the head here in the Museum in 1998 was replicated in Cairo. The same statue ensemble can be seen in Egypt today.

The pieces Nicholson purchased ranged from objects of daily life to inscriptions, mummies, coffins, texts and masterpieces of ancient art. It is in many ways a very eclectic collection, spanning a wide range of historical periods and with no real theme or specific focus. When Nicholson purchased these objects they were immediately sent to London for cataloguing by Joseph Bonomi and Dr Samuel Birch of the British Museum, then immediately shipped to Australia. Given that Nicholson did not ever really have the pieces in his personal possession, he was clearly buying a collection in Egypt specifically for donation to the University, rather than one he would enjoy himself. Indeed, on his way to England after leaving Australia permanently in 1862, he visited Cairo for a short time and purchased more antiquities that were almost immediately shipped to Sydney, arriving in 1864.

The Egyptian antiquities were later supplemented by a significant contribution of classical objects, including important Attic black and red figure vases acquired by Nicholson from dealers in Europe.

Nicholson himself states the purpose of his donation in an early publication, Aegyptiaca, published in 1891. He believed from the outset that a major donation to the University would, in time, attract other similar material and thus create the foundation for a great museum. Secondly, he believed that

'in a country like Australia, where all is new, objects comparatively insignificant in themselves, yet illustrative of the manners, religion, and thoughts of those who lived during earlier periods of the world's history, possess a value and an interest far beyond what would belong to them in European states, where collections of such objects are to be found in all great cities, and have been made, regardless of all expense, upon the largest scale'

Thus in his view the museum was a great enlightening influence, and a necessary element of European cultural and civilising norms in what was a far-flung outpost of Western society. Crucial to this view was the need to develop an understanding in the community of the ancient past and of the colony's roots in western civilisation, which art, literature and antiquities could help illustrate and magnify. In effect, the 'civilising' effect of the classical world would help bring order to a rude, vulgar and materialistic colony where a cultured, learned and educated man such a Nicholson must have seemed very out of place.

Of importance to the University, however, as has been noted by Michael van Leeuwen, Nicholson's donation of art and artefacts helped create a sense of 'instant history' for the University, in the traditions of the great British and European institutions. For Australia was viewed as a country without a past, despite the presence of Aboriginal people for the previous 60,000 years. Indeed, it can be argued that only in more recent years has this error been recognised in our political and educational structures. The passage of the Mabo legislation in 1996, which saw the doctrine of terra nullius overturned, formally recognised that Australia was occupied and in fact had a history before the arrival of white settlers in 1788.

While we have certainly moved on in our thinking of Aboriginal history, the views of Sir Charles Nicholson, as an early philanthropist and educator, reflected the prevailing views of the time. It is hoped that further research into his collection, and into archives held by other institutions with whom he had contact, will enable Sir Charles to receive fuller recognition as an important scholar-traveller of the 19th century.

Copyright © 2002 Dr Karin Sowada. All rights reserved.

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