The archaeological community was recently taken aback by the news that a team of Dutch archaeologists from the Leiden National Museum of Antiquities in the Netherlands has been banned from conducting future excavations in the Saqqara necropolis. This decision by the Egyptian authorities came in response to the museum’s exhibition, Kemet: Egypt in Hip Hop, Jazz, Soul & Funk. The contentious issue at hand revolves around the exhibition’s portrayal of ancient Egypt through an “Afrocentric” lens, a perspective that has been deemed offensive by the Egyptian Antiquities Service.
The exhibition opened in April and presents the influence of ancient Egypt and Nubia on various musicians of African descent. These artists included jazz icons such as Miles Davis and Sun Ra, as well as contemporary figures like Beyonce and Rihanna. The exhibition aimed to highlight the connections between these modern musicians and the rich cultural heritage of ancient Egypt, thus creating a dialogue between past and present.
However, the exhibition has drawn criticism from Egyptian authorities, who argue that its Afrocentric approach to ancient Egypt amounts to “falsifying history.” The head of Foreign Missions of the Egyptian Antiquities Service accused the museum of distorting historical facts by presenting ancient Egyptians as dark-skinned individuals, a claim that has sparked heated debate both within and outside the archaeological community.
The “Kemet” exhibition faced criticism almost immediately upon opening, with the Leiden National Museum of Antiquities’ social media accounts being inundated with negative comments. Many of these comments expressed either veiled or explicit disapproval of the exhibition’s portrayal of dark-skinned ancient Egyptians.
In response to the backlash, the museum added a note on its website providing additional information on its curatorial goals and warning that any offensive or racist comments posted to its social channels would be deleted. The museum also encouraged visitors to form their own opinions about the exhibition and engage in respectful dialogue on the cultural heritage of Egypt and Nubia.
This is not the first time that Egypt has taken issue with the depiction of its ancient ancestors. The Netflix docuseries “Queen Cleopatra,” which portrays the ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt as a woman of color, was heavily criticized by Egyptian authorities. Egyptologist and former Egyptian minister of antiquities, Zahi Hawass, stated that “no one with even a little education could make a film showing Cleopatra as black.”