Named after Sir Flinders Petrie, who held the UK's first chair in Egyptology and the most phonetically pleasing name for a Victorian, gentleman-adventurer, since Sir Rider Haggard. As a child he was disturbed to hear how a Roman Villa was excavated, by crude shovelling - offering his opinion that the earth should be pared back, exposing how the contents lay in their natural state. Lofty thinking for an eight year-old. In his early career he travelled to Egypt and investigated theories about the Great Pyramid at Giza's construction. Petrie produced a raft of practical principles and the basic data he recorded still provides much of the information about the site today. In addition he mentored successive generations of archaeologists in his methods, which later became de facto standards (including seriation: the dating of objects in a serialised manner). Seems obvious, but Petrie got there first - "in like Flinders", springs to mind. Howard Carter, who uncovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, was heavily influenced in his formative years by Petrie's close tutorship.
Most importantly, he rolled up his sleeves and got involved in the digging - an early adopter of a "back to the floor" policy of management. At an excavation of the New Kingdom site in Tanis, Egypt, he took over the role of foreman and removed the pressure on his diggers to find items as quickly as possible. As such, the earth was 'pared back', as his former, pre-teen self had precociously suggested. This made him popular with his digging crews. It's also pleasing to note that throughout the Petrie Collection in the museum, sepia photographs of his local digging supervisors are placed amongst the finds. He strikes you as someone who shared credit and responsibility among his workforce, rather than simply providing a chest to pin medals to. The chair at University College, London was created in 1892 and Flinders Petrie was the first to hold it. In 1913 he sold his collection to UCL, which is why it's now housed in The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.
There are several unique "firsts" in the collection including the oldest Egyptian fabrics (a linen tunic and a beadnet dress belonging to a dancer), Mummy portraits from the Roman period (which look a few decades old, instead of millennia) and much art and sculpture from Amarna, the home of Queen Nefertiti.
The museum is in the centre of the UCL (University College London) campus, an area of London visitors often stay in (Bloomsbury), but not necessarily investigate (The British Museum is nearby). Torrington Place, off Gower Street is where you enter the campus, by heading through the gates and up Malet Place. The museum entrance is a minute's walk among the student crowds. The museum is small and personal and the woman at reception: welcoming and helpful. Some of the exhibits are kept in dim light to preserve them, so a phalanx of upright torches sits on a nearby desk, for visitors to arm themselves with. It lends the experience some welcome Howard Carter theatre, as you point the torch into murky cabinets (though the collection is overwhelmingly visible to the naked eye).
Small in area, the Petrie Musuem really only suffers from an embarrassment of riches. Less than ten percent of the collection can ever be displayed at one time, but the whole catalogue is online. If you're a keen Egyptologist, I'd recommend surfing the catalogue (link below) to get an idea of what you can see before you go. Of course the contents will fascinate you more if you have an interest in the history of ancient Egypt, but that shouldn't dissuade the 'generally curious'. What distinguishes the Petrie Collection, is its focus on personal and domestic items - particularly those concerning beauty and appearance. Combs, make-up dispensers, potion holders, personal jewellery, decoration and pottery lend an insight into the everyday practices of Ancient Egyptians. For me one piece, of a tiny crocodile with a disgruntled half-smile, lets you know that there was a sense of humour amongst all the ceremony. The artefacts belonged to human beings, rather than distant, dusty cultures having little in common with today's visitors.
Introduction to Amelia Edwards by the curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
When I left, they were keen to know whether the visit was of interest, treating each visitor as a welcome guest - like all the best places do. The atmosphere was a refreshing blend: some keen Egyptologists were excitedly nodding and discussing the early seal (chin rubbing in over-drive), kids drawing make-up tools and jewellery and a good smattering of the curious, looking for somewhere new to visit.
As I left Malet Place, I was considering that most of the contents in the museum were crafted at a time when the streets nearby were fields and forest. A mile to the south, a small Neolithic settlement among the marshland of the Thames, would later expand to become Londinium. In just a couple of thousand years time.
Admission is free.
The Museum is open 1pm-5pm from Tuesday to Saturday.
Access: please contact the museum on the number below, to discuss specific access needs.
The Petrie Museum's online catalogue. If you'd like to examine the collection before you go.
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, Malet Place, Camden, London WC1E 6BT
Call: 020 7679 2884
Nearest Tube: Warren Street, Goodge Street, Euston Square or Euston.