Expansion of the collection through excavation and purchase (1886-1945)

Following Birch's death the Museum began to pursue an active policy of purchase of antiquities from dealers in Egypt, making use of the enterprising talents of Ernest Wallis Budge, who first went to Egypt in the 1880s. He was a man of great energy and very considerable intellectual abilities, a devoted servant of the Trustees of the Museum, who in his time both tripled the size of the Egyptian collections, and, by his numerous publications, greatly advanced popular enthusiasm for ancient Egypt. His interests lay principally in Egyptian funerary texts and in funerary equipment. He did not seek out works of art, but mummies, coffins and religious papyri were energetically pursued. In the late nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century, the dealers' shops in Egypt were overflowing with objects from chance discoveries and illicit excavations. It was possible to purchase material freely, and in whatever area lay the interests of the purchaser.

Budge exploited his opportunities with enthusiasm, building up a fine representative collection of mummies and coffins for the Museum, with good examples from most periods. Splendid copies of the 'Book of the Dead' were also obtained, in particular that prepared for the scribe Ani, possibly the best illustrated papyrus in existence. He also purchased new literary texts, like that called the 'Teaching of Amenemope.' Within the great scale of his activities it was inevitable that many fine pieces of sculpture and other works of art were acquired, notably the statues of Senenmut, steward of Queen Hatshepsut.

Although Budge remained unenthusiastic about supporting excavations in Egypt, he could not refuse to accept the large and continuing donations of excavated objects offered by the Egypt Exploration Fund and other British organisations; he even allowed members of his staff to participate in these excavations. The Museum, in consequence, benefited by the acquisition of large quantities of archaeological material with well-established provenances, and also of many pieces which could properly be called works of art: an ivory statue of an Early Dynastic king from Abydos, three remarkable granite statues of King Senusret III from Deir el-Bahri in Western Thebes, a colossal granite head of King Amenemhat III from Bubastis, a most sensitive wood carving of an official, Meryrehashtef, from Sedment. From excavations the Museum built up a fine representative, well-documented series of pottery from Predynastic times down to the Roman Period; and there were many thousands of small objects illustrating the culture of ancient Egypt, and large quantities of fragmentary antiquities exemplifying the artistic and industrial techniques of the ancient Egyptians. The British Museum has never limited itself to the collection and exhibition of works of art only. It is a museum of the history of the cultures of the whole world, and as such demonstrated by the size and range of the Egyptian collections.

When Budge retired in 1924, there were about 57,000 Egyptian objects in the Museum, many of them being quite small scarabs, amulets, shabti-figures, bronzes. In the following years, up to the Second World War, the pace of collecting slowed, partly due to the adverse economic situation, and partly to the limited programmes of excavation. Nevertheless, the British Museum continued to receive small, but regular, donations from the Egypt Exploration Society (formerly Fund). The principal sites excavated were El-Amarna and Armant. From the former, the city established by King Akhenaten, the Museum received tantalising fragments of fine sculpture and many small objects illustrating the daily life of the inhabitants of that short-lived city. The most remarkable piece was a cosmetic container in the form of a fish, made from polychrome opaque glass, a masterpiece of technique and beauty.

Two excavations supported directly by the Museum were carried out between 1928 and 1931 at Mostagedda and Matmar where some of the earliest Predynastic settlements were identified. From these places came much archaeological material of great scientific interest which considerably enhanced the reputation of the Egyptian collections as a resource for study and research. During the keepership of Wallis Budge non-museum scholars were not encouraged to work on the material in the Department; in the following years the Department became a more welcoming place for visiting Egyptologists. It was important, therefore, for the collections in general and for the principles governing acquisition to reflect the growing importance of the Museum as an institution for research.

One area of the Department which greatly attracted outside scholars was the papyrus collection, and in the years between the two World Wars, significant new acquisitions were made. In 1929 the Ramesseum Dramatic Papyrus, containing an account of the coronation of King Senusret I was presented by Dr Alan Gardiner and the British School of Archaeology in Egypt; in 1930 a group of literary, religious and medical texts, including the famous 'Dream Book,' was given by Mr and Mrs Alfred Chester Beatty; in the same year came a large collection of secular texts written in the domestic script, and coming from Tebtunis in the Fayum, was purchased.