Up and Down the Nile: The Beginning of a New Church Museum (1878)

dahabiyahjune09.jpgIn the winter of 1878, the Rev. William H. Benade (1816-1905 ) and John Pitcairn (1841-1916) were traveling in Egypt, one stop on an extended tour they had begun the previous June. Their purpose was to visit Europe, Egypt, and the Holy Land, spreading word about the New Church and the newly formed Academy of the New Church in Philadelphia. In Egypt they spent three months on the Nile traveling in a dahabiyah, the traditional Egyptian houseboat (see photo, top). Their boat, the Sylvia, left Cairo on January 10, 1878, traveling as far south as Abu Simbel.

diaryamarnajune09.jpgOne unexpected result of this tour was the beginning of the Academy’s museum. An entry in Pitcairn’s diary illustrates their gradual introduction to the antiquities market in Egypt:

“Arrd. Luxor 9 O’c. this morning . . . Called and paid our respects to the Am[erican] Consul an Egyptian named Ali Effendi Abu Murad. Long shebooks, coffee. Invited him to dine with us tomorrow evening. Purchased some Antiquities. This is the principal place for the manufacturing of antiquities. We are beginning to be able to judge between the genuine and the immitation [sic] . . . A great many vendors of Antiquities ply their avocation here. One of them took us to his house to show us a sitting figure, about a foot high for which he asked ₤30 Also a Roman head cut out of basalt . . . When we arrived at his house he gave a signal to the women who all disappeared, according to the custom. We were then ushered in to a house better than the average. The outside mud walls had no windows but we first came into a small court or yard where there were tame pigeons and two children playing. We were then conducted up stairs to a sort of portico or verandah where we were asked to be seated, a rug was placed on the mud floor and the Antiquities were placed before us” (John Pitcairn. Diary entry. 7 March 1878. Academy of the New Church Archives, Swedenborg Library, Bryn Athyn, PA).

shabtisjune09.jpgPurchases of antiquities continued throughout their Egyptian excursion. Later that year, during a trip to Italy, Benade wrote to Pitcairn to ask if he would be willing to purchase a collection of “about 1300″ Egyptian antiquities from Rodolfo Vittorio Lanzone (1834-1907), an Egyptologist at the Turin Museum. Pitcairn agreed, and by the end of 1878 well over 1,000 objects had been shipped to the Academy of the New Church in Philadelphia, the majority of which were Egyptian bronzes of various gods and goddesses, and a large collection of magical amulets. Benade intended to use these to teach Egyptian mythology to Academy students, in keeping with the unique ideas about the history of religion contained in the theological works of Emanuel Swedenborg. Benade first used the term “museum” in connection with these antiquities in December of 1878:

“When John and I return, we hope to bring with us a fine collection of Egyptian antiquities which I found in Turin, and which John has generously purchased. These things will make the beginning of a Museum for the Academy. I hope that all our friends will bear in mind that we shall need a Museum . . .” (William H. Benade. Letter to F. E. Boericke. 4 December 1878).

imhotepjune09.jpgIn the fall of 1878, even before Benade returned home from his journeys abroad, cases of objects arrived in Philadelphia. An exhibit of the antiquities was set up in the home of Dr. F. E. Boericke at 222 Franklin Street in Philadelphia for a number of weeks, and people were encouraged to come and see them (see F.E. Boericke. Letter to William H. Benade. 16 October, 1878). Benade returned home the next year, taking up residence at 110 Friedlander Street. It was in the parlor of this house, which was also used as a classroom, that the objects he and Pitcairn had collected were permanently displayed, primarily for the benefit of Academy students.

In 1897 the Academy moved from Philadelphia to a campus in nearby Bryn Athyn, and the museum moved with it. In 1902 the museum’s holdings were given a special room on the first floor of Benade Hall, the main academic building. In 1912 the museum moved into a large building financed by John Pitcairn specifically to house the Academy’s library and museum. Finally, in the early 1980s, the museum’s collections were moved from the library building into Glencairn, the former home of Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn, where they merged with the Pitcairn collections to create what is now known as Glencairn Museum. Today many would agreed with the Rev. William Benade’s statement, made 127 years ago, that “a good Museum is a necessary adjunct of a good School” (William H. Benade. Letter to Walter Childs. 17 April 1882).

Photos: The hand-colored lithograph of a dahabiyah is from David Robert’s work Egypt and Nubia, vol. II (1840s); the drawing is titled “Approach to the Fortress of Ibrim, Nubia” and is plate number 6. The two pages are from John Pitcairn’s 1878 travel diary, and describe his visit to the site of Tel el-Amarna, the capital city of Akhenaten. The diary is in the collection of the Academy of the New Church Archives, Swedenborg Library, Bryn Athyn, PA. The third photograph shows several examples from Glencairn Museum’s collection of shabtis (funerary figurines intended to do work for the deceased in the afterlife). Most of Glencairn’s shabtis originate from the Lanzone collection, purchased in 1878 by William Benade and John Pitcairn. The final photograph is a Late Period bronze statuette of Imhotep, the god of medicine and healing, in the collection of Glencairn Museum.

Further Reading:

Wikipedia entry for Dahabiyah 

Photo of Bishop William Henry Benade and John Pitcairn in Jerusalem (1878)

Glencairn Museum, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania: History and Mission 

Twenty-fifth Anniversary of Glencairn Museum (January 16, 1982)

Questions and comments may be addressed to the editors at [email protected].

June 30, 2009 | Posted by: Ed and Kirsten Gyllenhaal in New Church History Fun Fact