10th March 2000 at 00:00
THE COLLECTOR'S ART: Ancient Egypt at Eton College. The Brewhouse Gallery, Eton College.

Major William Joseph Myers was an old Etonian who fell in love with Egypt in the 1880s. As a result, primary school children within travelling distance of the poshest school in England have free access to an exciting aid to their key stage 2 history studies. Myers was a pupil at Eton between 1871 and 1875, after which he went to Sandhurst, obtained a commission in the King's Royal Rifle Corps and served in the Zulu War. Then, in 1882, he was sent to Cairo to be aide-de-camp to General Sir Frederick Stephenson, who was commander in chief there. In 1885, he met Emile Brugsch, said to be an illegitimate son of Kaiser Wilhelm I, who was an expert on antiquities.

Influenced and guided by Brugsch, Myers was smitten with ancient Egyptian culture and began to collect decorative objects which accumulated over many years - for he returned to Egypt later in life, between expeditions to many other parts of the world, including South America - into an important collection.

In 1898, by now retired from the army, Myers returned to Eton at the invitation of the headmmaster, Dr Edmund Warre, to be adjutant to the Eton College Rifle Volunteers. He had maintained contact with his old school and enjoyed sharing his Egyptian collection, which numbered more than 2,000 objects, with subsequent generations of pupils. But in 1899 he enrolled as a volunteer in his old regiment to serve in the Boer War and was killed, at the age of 41, by a sniper at Ladysmith on October 30, days after his arrival in South Africa.

Myers, who never married, wrote that the happiest years of his life had been spent at Eton and bequeathed his Egyptian collection to his old school.

Last year, to mark the centenary of Myers's death, an exhibition of his collection was mounted in a gallery at the school which was once the old brewhouse (at one time, the young gentlemen could expect their ale to be brewed on the premises). This compact space, with rooms on two levels for display and a small teaching area above, is overseen by Christine Ovenden, teacher and lecturer at the London Institute of Education. Her experience is in art education and, while she is happy to help teachers use the collection as a history resource, she also takes the opportunity to help children learn to look at objects in a way which will help them to appreciate other exhibitions of artefacts.

Visitors come to the collection via Myers's experience. After being introduced to an outline of his career, along with two or three choice pieces on the ground floor - a couple of Ptolemaic mummy masks from around 300BC and an intricately decorated mummy case - children and adults alike go upstairs to the two main rooms of the exhibition. Here are photographs of the Pyramids and the Sphinx as they would have been when Myers first saw them.

He was an inveterate diarist and some ofthe 31, still unpublished, pencil-written volumes owned by Eton are here displayed. His descriptions are enough to fire the imagination of any nine-year-old. He reports that inside one pyramid he wasn't sure which was worse, the perpetual attacks by bats or the stench of rotting mummies. Beside a photograph showing hundreds of apparently tiny people perched on the second pyramid is a caption describing how he and his friends climbed it before lunch and penetrated "Campbell's Tomb". Described as "a nasty job", this part of the expedition entailed the descent of a60-foot well.

Fascinating as the historical background is, the collection itself will be the focus of any school visit. Only a tenth of the objects are on display, but they are exquisite and revealing of the details of the mores of ancient Egyptian life and death. In fact, so carefully did Myers choose his pieces (almost all of them grave goods, but acquired by honest transaction rather than looting) that the Metropolitan Museum of New York is to exhibit them in the autumn.

Here, for instance, are many pieces in Egyptian blue, a kind of ceramic or "faience", which varies from pale green to luminous turquoise. There are several lotiform (lotus-shaped) chalices, rings, pectorals and other personal adornments which would have been used to decorate a mummy. There are small armies of shawabti, the tiny figures that represented a great person's slaves and would accompany him in the afterlife. There is a model boat and granary, a mummified human hand, kitten and falcon and a beautifully preserved, 4,000-year-old model of a servant-girl, with a duck in one hand, a chest on her head and an oryx at her feet. Later examples, from the Graeco-Roman period, include a portrait of a curly-haired man, so fresh it could have been painted yesterday.

The exhibition is small enough not to overwhelm, but upstairs Ms Ovenden has a further surprise in store. For here are a few objects children can handle, including a bronze kitten's head and a pair of beautiful but unnerving "eyes" which may be partly made of shell. Children don plastic gloves and consider what these objects might be and what they can teach about Egyptian custom.

Ms Ovenden prepares every class by visiting them at school first and talking about Myers and his collection with the aid of a few slides and three objects - something new, a Victorian doll and an ancient bowl - to give them a sense of historical perspective. When they arrive they are encouraged to look for themselves, to discover objects from clues and to piece together jigsaws of exhibits without having a picture to copy, so they experience something of the intelligent guesswork of the archaeologist.

Major Myers would surely be pleased that his collection is being so widely appreciated 100 years after his untimely death.

Runs until June 30. For information about visits, contact Christine Ovenden: 01753 671000

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