Gary Day: Indiana Jones and phoney pharaohs whip up cash

September 22, 2006

Fundraising event to rehouse University College London's Petrie Museum of Egyptology, September 16

We live in hard times. Is there no institution that doesn't have to think about raising money? But if you have to ask people to dig into their pockets you can at least show them a good time. And that's exactly what the Friends of the Petrie Museum did last Saturday as they began their campaign to raise £26 million for a new building to house their collection of Egyptian art and artefacts.

Many people were in costume. There was lady in a pith helmet clutching a magnifying glass, someone dressed as a scribe, and Cleopatra.

Osiris moved in slow motion through the crowd. His headgear looked like Marge Simpson's hair. There was also a Yorkshireman who had come as a Yorkshireman.

"At the moment," said a high priestess called Josephine, "we are a bit hidden away, and the new complex will be easier to find." "It will be on three floors," added Sally MacDonald, director of the museum. She was dressed as Lynette Doyle, from Death on the Nile . "I thought about coming as Lara Croft," she said, "but..." She shrugged philosophically. Managers sometimes have to crack the whip, but few would be so bold as to stuff one in their belt. Step forward Harrison Ford, or in this case Michael Worton, vice-provost of University College London. Having seen what Indiana Jones can do with a strip of cowhide, I gave him my full attention.

The Petrie's new building won't be shaped like a pyramid, and it will house Old Masters, rare books and manuscripts. "We have Jewish, Christian and Islamic art here," said Indiana, pushing his hat back on his head and screwing his eyes up at the late afternoon sun, "and we want to stress how these different cultures can exist in harmony."

The Petrie was the first museum in the world to put all its collection online, and the latest cultural heritage technologies will be an integral part of the new building. "We want to educate people," said Rameses the Great. Not the sort of remark you normally hear in a university. Nefertiti floated past. "It's very important to appreciate other cultures," she pronounced.

A lot of men were showing their appreciation of other cultures by watching the belly dancing. "It's actually part of a fertility rite," explained a glittering Sitara. "It gets the body ready for childbirth. Would you like to try?" But my body is getting ready to shuffle off this mortal coil, so I drifted into the bazaar and watched Anubis balletically cut out a heart and weigh it on the scales. Would its owner go to heaven or to hell? The tension proved too much. I went to the Islamic art stall. "We're not allowed to show images." There followed a long discussion. I learnt that Allah has 12 names and one of them is secret.

And then on to dinner and the highlight of the evening - an auction of prints, jewellery and work donated by Tracey Emin and Bridget Riley. The two are quite different but their pieces both went for £2,500. "I think we've still got a bit of a way to go before we reach our target," said Jan Picton, the organiser of the event. "But it was fun."

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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