Bernard Fishman, since 2012 the director of the Maine State Museum, has been a museum director for 34 years. But he started out as an Egyptologist, working for the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. He spent three years in Luxor, Egypt, working as an archaeologist and as an epigrapher (a specialist in ancient inscriptions) for the nearly century-old research institute called Chicago House.
Fishman may have long since left Egypt, but Egypt has never left him, and one of the ways he has sustained his connection with that ancient civilization has been by amassing one of the largest gatherings of early photographs of Egypt in private hands. He will be showing highlights of this unique collection at the Maine State Museum on February 22, 2018 as a projection show in 3D that will put viewers in the shoes of the intrepid Victorian travelers who first explored the land of the Nile 150 years ago.
Egypt is an exotic place of magic, mummies and monuments. For thousands of years it has attracted tough explorers and adventurers who braved dangers and hardships to see its wonders with their own eyes. For a generation or two after the invention of photography in 1839 a few bold pioneering photographers dragged their cumbersome equipment all the way to Egypt. They took pictures of the tombs and temples, and of the natives and the mummies and the crocodiles, to bring back to Europe and the US, to be enjoyed in warm gas-lit parlors by armchair voyagers unable to make such time-consuming, expensive and dangerous journeys in the days before tourist hotels and travel agencies.
Most of these Egypt photographs, which depict a land closer to the Middle Ages than the industrial 19th century, were taken in the form of stereoviews, the main commercial method of the day for distributing photographic views to a wide public. Stereoviews, produced on cards, or on glass for luxury examples, have two photographic images which allow the viewer to see 3D images when observed through a special scope with separated lenses.
Fishman colorfully describes his talk:
“We will see the historic stereoview images as our ancestors saw them, and experience a vanished world. From the port of Alexandria, on the very spot where Cleopatra killed herself, we will start our journey into the past. How do we get around in a strange land where almost nothing exists to help visitors and you are completely on your own? We’ll have to bargain for a guide and a Nile boat, which must be cleaned of vermin and stocked with a month’s supplies. How do we get to the Pyramids when the Sphinx is buried to its neck in the sand and there are no roads? Should we pay to do some digging ourselves, and maybe find a mummy to take home? What did the tombs and temples look like in the days before organized archaeology, when so much we can see today from the comfort of an air-conditioned bus was not even discovered yet? Right in the middle of the Luxor Temple is the house of the British and American consul. We’ll sit with him and have tea and a good supper of lamb and buy his antiquities and get a flag for our vessel, being sure to give him a good baksheesh in case we run into trouble with the boat or one of our friends comes down with typhus and has to be buried in the nearby little cemetery for Christians.
We’ll stand next to the man who discovered, and robbed, one of archaeology’s most famous finds, the cliff-tomb where over 40 pharaohs and their queens had slept undisturbed for three thousand years. We’ll see the crocodile pits of Kom Ombo and the palm-shaded Temple of Philae, the beautiful Pearl of Egypt, before it was flooded and moved to the barren and depressing plateau where it is today. We’ll be at the opening of the Suez Canal and see the Empress of France’s steam yacht pull into the waterway which took 10 years and 10,000 lives to build.”
You won’t want to miss being on the trip of a lifetime, as it was lifetimes ago.