Legend has it that after deciphering the Rosetta Stone in 1822, Jean-Francois Champollion ran down the street to tell his older brother – and then collapsed from the excitement.
The two brothers were part of the origins of French Egyptology, a craze for all things ancient Egyptian that gripped France after Napoleon's military campaigns in Egypt and Syria at the turn of the 19th century. The museum in their home town of Vif, France, has now reopened, allowing visitors a glimpse into the life of the two men who played a major role in the study of ancient Egypt.
This is the second opening of the museum, which formally opened in 2004 but was undergoing a five-year, €6.7 million ($7.9m) renovation project.
Jean-Francois Champollion and Jacques-Joseph Champollion-Figeac were from a family of seven children, living in an Alpine region of western France. Jean-Francois was raised by his older brother Jacques-Joseph, and was a language prodigy, studying Coptic, Arabic, Aramaic and other Semitic languages at a young age.
After the Rosetta Stone was discovered in the Napoleonic campaigns, in 1799, he and others worked on rubbings of its trilingual inscriptions, in an intellectual race taking place across Europe. But it was Jean-Francois who won the prize of being the first to transliterate its pictographic language into the Roman script of the French alphabet.
The Musee Champollion that tells the story of the brothers is sited in the house that belonged to Jacques-Joseph's wife, located south of Grenoble. It brings together about 300 objects, with 85 loans from the Musee du Louvre and seeks to recreate the 19th-century surroundings of the two men.
Its holdings include personal items such as the thobe the younger Champollion wore while travelling on his trips through Egypt in 1828 and 1829, his notes on philology, his Hebrew Bible, and the desk where he sat down and worked out the Rosetta’s code. Other objects evoke the ancient Egyptian civilisation that so captivated him, with funerary stelae, statuettes and jewellery on loan from the Louvre.
The rubbings he used are shown with his notes annotated along the side. The museum also has a number of Orientialist paintings that document the then-Ottoman Empire. The accuracy of these paintings varies significantly, and they point to Egyptology’s mixed legacy, as the young men heading south to the Mediterranean often failed to understand the culture they encountered there.
Successes such as Jean-Francois's understanding of ancient Egyptian writing are today balanced by the ongoing debate over the restitution of the artefacts that were taken to Western-world museums during the Napoleonic campaigns and subsequent archeological expeditions.
As part of its launch events, the museum is hosting an exhibition of Tunisian-born French architect Jean-Claude Golvin, who specialises in the reconstruction of antique and medieval sites of antiquity.
Returning Ancient Egypt: Architectural Journey, from Jean-Claude Golvin to Assassin’s Creed is at the Musee Champollion until November 21. More information is available at en.musee-champollion.fr