Egyptian rooms in the Musée Guimet

After the status and staff of the Musée Guimet1, let’s go back to this establishment to look at its now lost Egyptian gallery2–the museum’s Egyptological collections having been exchanged with the Asian pieces of the Louvre in 1948.

Ancient Egypt as a chapter in the history of religions

After a trip to Egypt in 1865-1866, the Lyon industrialist Émile Guimet started a collection and decided to devote himself to the study of ancient and oriental religions3. A few years later, he set about founding a centre for the study of the history of religions in Lyon, which was attached to a museum he had built and which also housed teaching, translation and publishing activities. In order to reach a wider public, Guimet moved his museum to Paris and donated it to the State in exchange for the position of director for life (without salary) and the choice of candidates to be submitted to the administration for his staff. Organised in a building actually identical to the one that had housed his collections in Lyon, the new museum opened to the public in 1889.

The Egyptian rooms were on the 2nd floor, in the left wing (on rue Boissière)
The Musée Guimet in Paris, 1888 (Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris, 1-EST-02801)

What considerations governed the organisation of these rooms? Its founder wrote: “Museums are works of education; […] You cannot make an Egyptian gallery with statues alone. You need texts and funerary furniture.”4 The museum was characterised by a clear pedagogical will, notably in the extensive contextualisation of the collections and the rather original ways of presenting them. The Petit guide illustré that describes its rooms announces its pedagogical and rationalist aim right from the introduction:

Since a museum of Religions must be above all a collection of ideas, we have endeavoured above all to present a rigorous methodical classification, a clear demonstration. Taking each people in particular, we have classified its religions according to the chronological order of their appearance, and subdividing them into their different sects or schools, whenever the precision of our information has allowed us. In each of these subdivisions we have grouped the various representations of the same divinity, so as to bring out clearly the modifications which time or the progress of ideas has brought about either in its characteristic features, its form and attitude, or in its attributes and mythical meaning. Whenever possible, we have highlighted in our showcases the pieces that are most remarkable for their rarity, their antiquity, their artistic perfection or their material.

Milloué (de), Léon-Joseph, Petit guide illustré au musée Guimet, Paris, Ernest Leroux, 1st ed., 1890, p. vvi.

Despite these rigorous principles, the arrangement of the collections could not completely ignore the material contingencies of the space allocated to it and the furniture available. It is also not impossible that a certain sense of staging was sometimes involved.5

The place of ancient Egypt in this scheme did not seem essential, except for the isiac cults that spread throughout the Roman Empire, whose material traces found in Gaul formed one of the nuclei of the initial Guimet collection. The gallery that was reserved for Egyptian pieces closed the tour and occupied the last section of the museum Petits guides illustrés.

Two factors, however, were to contribute to strengthening the place of Egyptian antiquities among the museum’s collections: on the one hand, the presence of an Egyptologist in the institution’s scientific staff, in the person of librarian Henri Galliment6 and later especially Alexandre Moret7, then already assistant director of studies at the École pratique des hautes études (section for historical and philological sciences) in Egyptian archaeology; another decisive element was the support given by Guimet to excavation campaigns in Egypt and the presentation of their products in the museum, which would also make Egyptology a significant field of the establishment’s activities, even if it was never exclusive nor did it benefit from a dedicated staff.

The Egyptian rooms

Few images are known of the Egyptian rooms; however, the guidebook was published very regularly8 and allows us to understand the evolution of the exhibition. The collections were displayed in a neutral architecture with a classical vocabulary, interpreted at the opening as Pompeian9. The opening of the museum provoked quite an excitation in the press (“In the monument on the Place d’Iéna, the visitor walks alive in a dream of lost deities”…10), but the Egyptian collections did not striked out, no doubt overshadowed by the Asian rooms, which were more exotic in the eyes of a public already relatively familiar with Egyptian culture.

The exhibition occupied the gallery on the second floor of the wing overlooking Rue Boissière11. The first room12 was dedicated to the Egyptian funerary practices and beliefs: mummies, funerary furniture, and reproductions of mastaba reliefs, as well as a statue of “Osiris, god of the dead, with his body wrapped in strips like a mummy, holding in his hands the whip and the hook”. The second room was dedicated to the deities13; the third to “historical objects”14 and the last one to the “Egyptian-Roman” cult15; these divisions were not exclusive, however, and the room of historical objects contained funerary objects (ushabtis), just as the room of Egyptian-Roman religion contained a reproduction of a statue from the Old Kingdom.

This exhibition, described in 1890 in the first edition of the Petit guide illustré, was not modified until 1897: two showcases presenting objects from the Antinoupolis excavations, in the founding of which the museum participated, were then integrated into the last two rooms16. These additions provided a sort of transition between the “historical” monuments, which were quite diverse in nature, and the most recent pieces in the collection.

The fifth edition of the Petit guide illustré, in 1904, shows more important changes in the Egyptian rooms: the furniture exhumed at Antinoupolis between 1896 and 1903, including several mummies to which we will return, was then displayed on the second floor of the tower17, while the Egyptian gallery now had five rooms18; the first two rooms remained identical, except for the arrival in the first one of the statue of Sheikh el-Beled, previously at the end of the tour; The third room contains a stele and two display cases presenting objects from Amélineau’s excavations at Abydos. As for the last two rooms, they are devoted to the isiac religion; it is only a reformulation of the “Egyptian-Roman cult” mentioned above. In this exhibition, the recent discoveries of Abydos seem to have taken the place of those of Antinoupolis, which had reached a sufficient volume to benefit from their own room.

A new configuration was attested in 1910, with six rooms, the third of which was now totally devoted to the excavations of Abydos; the fourth room also contained Abydenian pieces and “historical” monuments from various periods; finally, the fifth and sixth rooms were devoted to the Isiac religion: it would seem that the former “third room” had been divided into two19 without the entrance or the back of the gallery having been disturbed.

The first room evokes beliefs and funerary practices, followed by images of the deities. This is followed by more “general” pieces that illustrate Egyptian history, and recent archaeological discoveries. The tour ended with the last stage of Egyptian religion and its diffusion in the Roman Empire.

Auxiliary devices for the visit

The collections of antiquities were less prominent in the Musée Guimet than in other museums, and constituted one of the elements, among others, of a whole rich educational system. In Paris, the Musée Guimet continued its publishing activities, with several collections20 and the Revue d’histoire des religionsns. The lectures were also particularly developed, constituting a “spoken catalogue of the museum’s collections”.21; they sometimes took the form of “lecture tours” conducted in the rooms.

In addition to the library, which was open to researchers, the museum also displayed illustrations in the rooms among the collections, such as drawings of mastaba chapel decor22 recovered from the Egyptian pavilion at the 1867 Universal Exhibition, or from 1897 onwards photographs, illustrating in particular the sites of origin of the objects23 or royal mummies24.

The plaster cast of the “bed of Osiris” in the rooms of the Musée Guimet, 1906, postcard N.D. n° 8125

Casts were also used to exhibit certain deities or religious phenomena, the explicit interest of the institution not being to present its collections but rather to illustrate the history of religions through them. Thus, in the galeries was found a cast of the “Bed of Osiris” 26, discovered at Abydos by Émile Amélineau during his excavations, which led to the creation of a real “Abydos excavation room” in 190627.

A copy of the “cheikh el-Beled” in the Musée Guimet (detail), 1909 (Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine, Mémoire database, picture 68L04029)

The museum also displayed casts of famous pieces in its galeries, like the Cheikh el-Beled28 whose original Guimet had seen in the Boulaq Museum during his first trip to Egypt, or a head attributed to Queen Tiye29. It should be noted, however, that although these two statues were famous relics of Egyptian sculpture, their role in the illustration of Egyptian religion remains rather vague30.

Project for the development of the tower, Jules Chatron, v. 1879-188931

The plans for devices used to present the remains associated with ancient religious phenomena in a comprehensive and attractive manner did not end there. For many years it was announced that a panorama would be installed on the top floor of the museum’s corner tower; its canvas was to illustrate “various temples of India, Egypt, Japan, etc.”.32 This idea is present as early as the Lyon museum, and is found in all the editions of the Petit guide illustré up to 189733 before being abandoned.

“A small necropolis”: an unfinished project?

Other devices, which we would even call “immersive” today, were envisaged: the architect Paul-Hippolyte Boussac had produced a reproduction of the tomb of Nakht during a mission to Egypt; he exhibited it at the Salon des Champs-Élysées in 1896 and had it acquired by the Musée Guimet34; after having reproduced the tomb of Sennefer35 during a new mission and having presented it at the universal exhibition of 1900, he indicated in the request for financing for its acquisition “I saw Mr Guimet, he knows the original of my Theban tomb and would like very much to have my reconstitution in his museum where he would install it in the basements with my first survey so as to form a small necropolis, he would illuminate the whole thing with electric light.”36 The rest of the file does not give any indication of the further negotiations, and it was finally the Faculty of Letters of Lyon that obtained this second tomb.

The delivery of the first tomb to the museum is indeed attested37; I have not, however, found any mention of them in the press or in the recurrent editions of the museum’s Petit guide, even though the Guimet team was committed to highlight their achievements, for example through repeated commemorative publications38. Without further information, better to remain cautious in the face of the facts reported by Boussac, and I even wonder whether the first tomb was opened to the public in the first place.

Display of the Antinoupolis mummies

Finally, let us stop for a moment to consider one of the most famous events of the museum: the exhibition of the products of Albert Gayet’s excavations at Antinoupolis, and in particular the Roman tombs and their mummies. For several years in a row, Gayet presented the contents of several newly opened tombs, arranging the accompanying funerary furnishings around the bodies, which were always striking in their state of preservation. By analysing this archaeological material, he developed a whole narrative around these mummies to characterise them in an almost fictional way, which obviously touched the imagination of contemporaries. The mummies were then presented at the Musée Guimet, in the rotunda above the library, in the same effective manner. The concern to contextualise the bodies was commendable; nevertheless, the excavator undoubtedly indulged himself into making some questionable compromises with sensationalism39. Nevertheless, he secured permanent funding for his excavations, which he also promoted through other innovative events, such as the presentation of live models of clothing found in Byzantine tombs40.

Mummies of Antinoupolis: Leukyone and the “Byzantine Lady”, on the rotunda floor of the Musée Guimet, 1909 (Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine – RMN distribution: Mémoire database, ref. 284_62, picture 68L04036)

It is difficult to say, without going into the details of the correspondence between Gayet and the museum staff, what part each played in the arrangement chosen for the exhibition. It was, however, extremely popular with the public, and aroused a real trend that ranged from a taste for the macabre to an actual fervour41.

At the Musée Guimet, founded when the history of ancient Egypt was already well established and the public had become familiar with its culture, the organisation of the rooms hardly changed during the quarter of a century between their installation in Paris and the First World War. To study the history of Egyptian culture, the spaces reserved for the funerary world and the various deities continued to exist throughout the period. These rooms were characterised above all by the progressive integration of recently exhumed archaeological remains, which led to the creation of a space devoted to the excavations of Antinoupolis, then those of Abydos. The Musée Guimet also seems to have undertaken genuine experiments in the presentation of its collections–doubtlessly facilitated by the great deal of autonomy it was enjoying and an administrative framework that was less restrictive than that of other French public museums. Benefiting from an original status, initially private, then attached to the administration but maintained under the totally autonomous scientific direction of its founder, and in line with the Lyon study centre which it succeeded, it was a place of teaching and experimentation of all kinds to promote the study of ancient or oriental religions, and the cultures which followed them.

This post was translated into English from the French original “Les salles égyptiennes du musée Guimet”, January 2022.

  1. See « Des institutions, des musées et des hommes : le musée Guimet de Paris », 18 August 2019. []
  2. This post is taken from the second part of the paper “Exposer l’Égypte ancienne au Louvre et au musée Guimet au XIXe siècle” presented at the conference Arts & vestiges : contextualisation, exposition, scénographie (October 2019, INHA) and published in abridged form on Contextualités. Réflexions et regards hybrides in November 2020. I am grateful for the help I received in this research at the Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine from Mr Gilles Désiré dit Gosset and Mr Bruno Martin, and at the Musée national des arts asiatiques – Guimet from Mrs Cristina Cramerotti. []
  3. Galliano, Geneviève (ed.), Un jour j’achetai une momie. Émile Guimet et l’Égypte antique, Lyon, Hazan, 2012; Lebée, Thomas, “Émile Guimet et la morsure du canard égyptien. Un curieux au musée de Boulaq”, Les Cahiers de l’École du Louvre 5, 2014. []
  4. Guimet National Museum of Asian Arts library, archives, box “Musée Guimet”, typed note from Guimet, 25 June 1913. []
  5. A Diana of Ephesus thus occupied a place of honour in the Egyptian gallery above the balustrade that dominated the first floor of the central pavilion, although its presence was ultimately awkward, since the guide himself specified that it was an altered copy from the 17th or 18th century, with an armadillo on it (Milloué (de) Léon-Joseph, Petit guide illustré au musée Guimet, Paris, Ernest Leroux, 1st ed., 1890, p. 194). []
  6. Galliment (1865-1899) worked at least at the museum between 1894 and 1896. He was trained in Egyptology and Assyriology by Eugène Révillout and Eugène Ledrain (Chaboseau A., “La première Université populaire”, Le mouvement socialiste (4th year) 93, 24 May 1902, p. 978-982, p. 980-982), probably at the École du Louvre, and by Gaston Maspero at the École pratique des hautes études (Annuaire de l’École pratique des hautes études. Section des sciences historiques et philologiques, 1899 [school year 1897-1898], p. 127; 1900 [school year 1898-1899] p. 121); he thus seems to have been the first authentic Egyptologist of the Musée Guimet. []
  7. Moret (1868-1938), a pupil of Maspero, published under the auspices of the museum Le rituel du culte divin journalier en Égypte (Annales du musée Guimet 14, Paris, Ernest Leroux, 1902) and Du caractère religieux de la royauté pharaonique (Annales du musée Guimet 15, Paris, Ernest Leroux, 1902); he joined the museum in 1906 as assistant curator, and became curator in 1913, on the retirement of the Indianist Léon-Joseph de Milloué. He ran the museum after Guimet’s death in 1918. []
  8. It had no less than six editions between 1890 and 1910: Milloué (de) Léon-Joseph, Petit guide illustré au musée Guimet, Paris, Ernest Leroux, 1st ed., 1890; 2nd ed., 1894 ; 3st ed., 1897; 4th ed., 1899; 5th ed., 1904 ; 6th ed., 1910. []
  9. La Justice, 21 June 1888: “The almost uniform decoration of the rooms and galleries, in a sober style, was borrowed from Pompeii.”; Le XIXe siècle, 3 April 1888: “the monument […] is an exact reproduction of a house in Pompeii.” []
  10. La Cocarde, 11 July 1891. []
  11. There is every reason to believe that this exhibition is extremely similar to the one that had been organised at the Musée Guimet in Lyon, as suggested by photographs that were kindly sent to me by Mr Jérôme Ghesquière; their comparison with the Lyon guidebook and subsequent editions of the Petit guide illustré does not reveal any substantial modification. []
  12. Milloué (de) Léon-Joseph, Petit guide illustré au musée Guimet, Paris, Ernest Leroux, 1st ed., 1890, p. 187. []
  13. Milloué (de) Léon-Joseph, Petit guide illustré au musée Guimet, Paris, Ernest Leroux, 1st ed., 1890, p. 194. []
  14. Milloué (de) Léon-Joseph, Petit guide illustré au musée Guimet, Paris, Ernest Leroux, 1st ed., 1890, p. 198. []
  15. Milloué (de) Léon-Joseph, Petit guide illustré au musée Guimet, Paris, Ernest Leroux, 1st ed., 1890, p. 202. []
  16. Milloué (de) Léon-Joseph, Petit guide illustré au musée Guimet, Paris, Ernest Leroux, 3rd ed., 1897, p. 284285. []
  17. Milloué (de) Léon-Joseph, Petit guide illustré au musée Guimet, Paris, Ernest Leroux, 5e ed., 1904, p. 302306. []
  18. The delineation of the rooms seems rather loose, as the following note indicates, and in the absence of an annotated plan or precisely located views, I believe that these are subdivisions of the same gallery, without annexing new space. []
  19. According to a postcard from 1906 (Galliano Geneviève (dir.), Un jour j’achetai une momie. Émile Guimet et l’Égypte antique, Lyon, Hazan, 2012, p. 80, fig. 21), this division could have been achieved simply by adding transverse showcases across the axis of the gallery. []
  20. The Annales du musée Guimet were even divided in sub-series: the Bibliothèque d’étude and Bibliothèque de vulgarisation. []
  21. Archives nationales, F/21/4473, letter from Miloué to Guimet, 7 November 1895. []
  22. “Twelve large paintings intended to show, according to contemporary monuments, the state of Egyptian civilization about six thousand years ago (4th and 5th dynasties), copies of decorative paintings from the tombs of Ti-Phtah-hotep and Khou-hotep-her at Saqqarah, executed under the supervision of Mariette-Bey” Milloué (de) Léon-Joseph, Petit guide illustré au musée Guimet, Paris, Ernest Leroux, 1st ed., 1890, p. 190191. []
  23. Milloué (de) Léon-Joseph, Petit guide illustré au musée Guimet, Paris, Ernest Leroux, 3rd ed., 1897, p. 285 (Antinoupolis). []
  24. Milloué (de) Léon-Joseph, Petit guide illustré au musée Guimet, Paris, Ernest Leroux, 3rd ed., 1897, p. 286. []
  25. Galliano Geneviève (ed.), Un jour j’achetai une momie. Émile Guimet et l’Égypte antique, Lyon, Hazan, 2012, p. 80, fig. 21; in the background of the picture appears the head of Isis transferred to the Louvre in the same year (see “‘You shall not have my head!’ An exchange between the Louvre and the Musée Guimet”, 29 September 2019, translated 31 December 2021.). []
  26. Milloué (de) Léon-Joseph, Petit guide illustré au musée Guimet, Paris, Ernest Leroux, 6th ed., 1910, p. 217. []
  27. National Museum of Asian Arts–Guimet library, archives, box “musée Guimet”, series of copied letters sent by Guimet to an unnamed recipient, between 1905 and 1906, when setting up these rooms. []
  28. Milloué (de) Léon-Joseph, Petit guide illustré au musée Guimet, Paris, Ernest Leroux, 1st ed., 1890, p. 208. []
  29. I have not been able to find any mention of this casting in successive editions of the Petit guide illustré, whereas it is well attested in 1909 (Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine, Mémoire database, picture 68L04030); this at least makes us cautious about the completeness of written sources, even if they are regularly updated, on the actual state of museum galeries. []
  30. Archives nationales, F/21/4470: “In the intention of the founder of the Museum, the Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Gallic rooms should contain only those pieces which are indispensable for the comparison of the divinities of ancient Europe with those of the East. It is intended to ask museums in France and abroad for casts of the most characteristic pieces in terms of attributes or attitude that are essential for these comparisons” (proof of printed text without explicit date or destination, later than at least 1889, which is refers to in the past tense; it may be a project for the publication of the Jubilé du musée Guimet ?). []
  31. Baptiste, Pierre and Cramerotti, Cristina, Enquêtes vagabondes. Le voyage illustré d’Émile Guimet, Paris, Gallimard, 2017, fig. 87, p. 41 and note n° 111. []
  32. Milloué (de) Léon-Joseph, Petit guide illustré au musée Guimet, Paris, Ernest Leroux, 1st ed., 1890, p. viii; 3rd ed., 1897, p. ix; Le Constitutionnel, 7 August 1897. []
  33. Milloué (de) Léon-Joseph, Petit guide illustré au musée Guimet, Paris, Ernest Leroux, 3rd éd., 1897, p. ix; Le Constitutionnel, 7 August 1897. []
  34. Archives nationales, F/17/2942, letter from Boussac to Xavier Charmes, 23 mai 1896, with copy of a letter from Guimet to Boussac from May 21st, 1896); F/21/2125, file “Theban Tomb” (1896). []
  35. The name is explicitly stated in a letter from Boussac to Liard, director of Higher Education, from Luqsor, on February 19th, 1899 (Archives nationales, F/17/2942, file “Boussac, P.-Hippolyte”.). []
  36. Archives nationales, F/17/2942, file “Boussac, P.-Hippolyte”, letter from Boussac to a director (Xavier Charmes, director of the secretariat and accounting of the ministry of Public Education and Fine Arts, or Liard, Higher Education director?), 6 octobre 1900. []
  37. The “Theban tomb” was delivered to the Musée Guimet on 12 August 1896 (Archives nationales, F/21/4472). I have not found any trace of the installation in the museum’s accounting documents for these years (Archives nationales, F/17/3848/3 and F/21/2125). []
  38. [Collectif], Le Jubilé du musée Guimet1st ed., Paris, Ernest Leroux, 1904 ; 2nd ed., Lyon, A. Rey, 1909. []
  39. For example, he transcribed a seance in one of his lectures, which was later published, to describe the existence of a dead woman whose grave he was studying (Gayet Albert, Fantômes d’Antinoë. Les sépultures de Leukyoné et Myrithis, Paris, société française d’éditions d’art, 1904, p. 5258; see “Mummies & manias”, 31 août 2019), or played on an ambiguity that was very weakly dispelled in the coincidence of the name of a mummy “Thaïs” found near a religious mummy with the success story of the converted courtesan Thaïs and Serapion the anchorite (Gayet Albert, Antinoë et les sépultures de Thaïs et Sérapion, Paris, société française d’éditions d’art, 1902). On the Antinoupolis excavations, their exploitation and reception, see Calament Florence, La révélation d’Antonioé par Albert Gayet. Histoire, archéologie, muséographie (Bibliothèque d’études coptes 18), Le Caire, Institut français d’archéologie orientale, 2005. []
  40. However, these events went beyond the framework of the Musée Guimet, where –to my knowledge–only exhibitions of the result of the excavations took place, accompanied by conferences. []
  41. “We know with what art of staging Mr A. Gayet presents his fragile debris wrapped in strips that he tears from the sands of Antinoë.

    Each mummy has its own distinct personality, marked by the objects that surrounded it in the tomb. One is the Broochess and the other the Priestess or the Magician, and this one a Byzantine lady. Intrigued people, friends and even devotees are drawn to them. The Byzantine Lady is always surrounded by flowers. It is a young actress who trusts her superstitiously and comes to bring her a bouquet every time she has obtained something, through her intervention, she imagines.” Céli (de) Georges, “Figure d’hypogée”, La Gazette de France, June 1st, 1913. []

Thomas Lebée

Chargé de travaux dirigés (École du Louvre) ; documentaliste scientifique au département des antiquités grecques, étrusques et romaines (musée du Louvre)

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