One March evening in the year 1826 one coach after another stopped in front of Baron van Westreenen’s residence, the building that is now the Museum Meermanno. Van Westreenen so rarely showed items from his collection that when he organized a small exhibition even the king’s brother came to view it.
An account of this evening, written by one of the visitors, has been preserved. There were lots of fine books on display, the visitor wrote, ‘but the item that deserved everybody’s admiration and eclipsed everything they had previously seen, or would ever see, was a long strip of Egyptian papyrus.’
In this period Europe was under the spell of Egyptian antiquities, inspired in part by the decoding of hieroglyphics by the French scholar Champollion between 1822 and 1824.
Baron van Westreenen was the first man in the Netherlands to collect Egyptian antiquities, which is one reason why his small exhibition attracted so much attention. From 1822 onwards the baron purchased a total of 372 Egyptian artefacts.
The pinnacle of the collection is the work known as Book of Isis’ Breathing, a perfect example of late Ancient Egyptian funerary literature. This book was created circa 42 B.C., and intended for Nespaoetitawi. Van Westreenen bought this relic in 1827 at the auction in Paris of the estate belonging to the antiquarian Dominique Vivant Denon. Denon had managed to obtain the item in Egypt during Napoleon’s expedition (1798-1801). From a diary we know how the French emperor reacted when he set his eyes on this papyrus: ‘Ah! mon Dieu! Que c’est laid!’ (‘Oh! My God! How ugly this is!’). When someone explained that few papyri had been preserved in such a beautiful and undamaged condition, Napoleon answered that it would certainly hang nicely ‘behind the chairman’s seat’ of some historical institute!
Finally the papyrus made its way to the Museum Meermanno, where it was hung in the room of ancient antiquities. In 1988 the frame suddenly collapsed, falling two metres, and glass splinters damaged the papyrus.