Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 November 2007
Issue No. 872
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gilt complex ruffles royal tour

The famous curse took its toll on the Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs exhibition, which opened late last week at the O2 arena in London, writes Nevine El-Aref

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London fell under Tutankhamun's spell as the "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" exhibition opened to the public at the O2 arena

While London has been seized by Tutmania as the Tutankhamun and The Golden Age of the Pharaohs exhibition opened to the public, tension has overshadowed its official inauguration.

At the opening press conference, Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), criticised the British Museum for allegedly stalling on its decision on whether to lend the key to hieroglyphics, the Rosetta Stone, for the opening of the $600 million Grand Egyptian Museum in 2012.

"The answer is not a straightforward yes or no from the British Museum. They say they must see the museum and its security measures; but they know it is not finished until 2012... We are not trying to keep these artefacts forever. I am disappointed," Hawass said. He added that the Egyptians had extended goodwill to Britain by lending the 130 objects that form the Tutankhamun exhibition, but that trust has not been reciprocated.

Hawass also defended the high ticket price to the show at the O2 in Greenwich: 20 for an adult at weekends, or 15 during the week. Despite the high ticket price, the organisers reported that 325,000 advance tickets had already been sold for the exhibition, a pre-opening record for the tour. They are hoping that up to three million visitors will pass through the O2 arena by the time the exhibition closes in August 2008 -- almost double the number that visited the 1972 Treasures of Tutankhamun at the British Museum.

"If a person goes to the cinema he pays 15, and maybe goes to sleep," Hawass said. "Here he sees beautiful artefacts and learns." Above all, he said, up to $140 million raised from the Tutankhamun tour, which has already visited several US cities as well as Bonn and Basle, will be ploughed back into the conservation of monuments in Egypt.

"Egypt previously gave a lot of free meals," Hawass declared, adding that when the Tutankhamun exhibition came to London 35 years ago, Egypt received nothing in return. "We didn't get a penny and the British Museum is still making money," he says.

However, John Taylor, an assistant curator at the British Museum, said that in 1972 the proceeds raised from the exhibition went on the conservation of the Philae Temple complex, adding that he was "a little surprised" by Hawass's claim.

A spokeswoman for the museum confirmed that 654,474 went to Philae in the 1970s. Taylor said the request for the Rosetta Stone was "going through the formalities" and that the British Museum had received a formal request which it was considering. "We need a clear idea of the security arrangements," Taylor confirmed.

Inaugurated last week by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak and Prince Charles, the Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs displays 130 artefacts from the Egyptian Museum, 50 of them from the museum's Tutankhamun collection and many of which have never been seen in the United Kingdom before.

"This time when Tutankhamun returns to London, he also brings with him his family," Hawass told reporters. He added that visitors to this exhibition will not only know and learn more about the life and magic of the most famous boy king, but they will also have the opportunity to learn firsthand about this important period of time in ancient Egyptian history.

Meanwhile, Terry Garcia, executive vice- president of the National Geographic Society, said visitors to the exhibition would have the opportunity to learn about a tumultuous period in Egyptian history and witness how new technology was opening up the past in ways never imagined.

"Everyone who comes into contact with the legacy of Tutankhamun becomes enthralled by the story of the boy king," said Timothy J Leiweke, president and CEO of AEG, one of the exhibition sponsors. He added that the fact that more than four million people visited the exhibition on its US legs of the tour was testament to this fact. "If pre-sales are any indication, the turnout in London will continue to show the huge public appetite to discover more about the world of Tutankhamun."

The exhibition is organised thematically in 11 experiential galleries with background about the social and political backdrop of the time in which their owners lived and ruled. Each gallery focuses on a specific theme such as daily life in ancient Egypt, traditional religion, death, burial and the afterlife, and builds up to the final galleries where Tutankhamun's treasure resides. This includes a gallery dedicated to five items that were found on the Pharaoh's body when Howard Carter entered the tomb in 1922. A projection of the objects depicts where the items were positioned on the body when his coffin was opened.

The final gallery of the exhibition features scans of Tutankhamun's mummy obtained during landmark Egyptian research and conservation featuring a CT-scan of the mummy. The scans were captured through the use of a portable CT-scanner donated by Siemens Medical Solutions and National Geographic, which allowed researchers to compile the first three- dimensional picture of Tutankhamun. Additionally, the final gallery contains video footage from Luxor as Tutankhamun's mummy was unveiled in his tomb on 4 November 2007.

Early royal tombs from the 18th Dynasty, including artefacts from the tombs of Yuya and Tuya, the mysterious burial in tomb KV55 and the funerary treasures of Tutankhamun are on show, while among the highlights of the exhibition are the 40-centimetre high gold coffin that held the viscera of Tutankhamun, the gold diadem from his mummy, a gold fan featuring an ostrich hunt, a small gold canopic coffin ornamented with faience, a silver trumpet used for religious ceremonies, the gilded wooden sarcophagus of Tuya, the gilded mask of Yuya, the painted wooden throne of Princess Satumun and a carved face of Akhenaten. On leaving the exhibition, visitors will walk through a replica of Tutankhamun's burial chamber.

A gallery dedicated to Howard Carter, the British explorer who discovered Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922, is a unique addition to the London exhibition and evokes the atmosphere of exploration and the thrill of the 1922 discovery in Luxor using photographs, newspaper headlines and footage.

A companion audio tour narrated by Egyptian actor Omar Sharif is another attraction of the exhibition. The audio tour provides in- depth information on many of the exhibition's most important objects and also allows visitors to customise their tour. It is provided in English, French, Spanish and German.

Among the facilities provided is a website dedicated to supporting teachers of Key Stage 2 pupils studying ancient Egyptian. The online resources have been developed by the British Museum to complement and enhance classroom visits. The online resources make it easy for schools to plan a visit and help teachers make learning about Egypt thought-provoking and lively for pupils.

This is the exhibition's seventh stop. The first venue was inaugurated by Mrs Mubarak in Basel, Switzerland in 2004. In the same year, President Hosni Mubarak and former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder inaugurated the same exhibition in Bonn, after which it crossed the Atlantic to the United States where it was put on display in four cities: Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and Philadelphia.

After London, the Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs exhibition will return to the US to go on show first in Dallas and then New York.

The exhibition, which is touring the world to raise money towards preserving Egyptian antiquities, attracted four million visitors during its two-year stay in the US.

In London, Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs has already captivated Londoners and been featured in the headlines of local newspapers and magazines. The Times launched a special issue on the boy king not only reviewing the exhibition but his life, family, tomb, discovery and the mystery behind his death which was partially solved when his mummy was subjected to the CT-scanning in 2005. The Times is also giving away free DVDs each day this week.

One can hardly turn on the TV without chancing upon a special show about the mysteries of Egypt's Pharaonic past or a documentary featuring the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb by British Egyptologist Howard Carter in 1922. A film showing the careful packing of the objects, their transportation overland from US to London, and the process of placing them on display at the O2 has also been shown.

Posters featuring items from the collection as well as splendid artefacts from the reign of the boy king's monotheistic predecessor Akhenaten, the latter's beautiful wife Nefertiti, and Tutankhamun's grandparents Yuya and Tuya adorn the arrival halls and corridors at the airport, as well as the city's main roads, bridges, metro and train stations.

The roads in London itself are lined with huge electronic billboards advertising the exhibition and its magnificent golden objects. Gift shops are stocked up with replicas of Egyptian artefacts, including canopic jars, statuettes, coloured scarabs, mummy tins and ushabti figurines.

Famous landmarks in the British capital also marked the return of the Tutankhamun exhibition by being plunged in gold. The Tower of London, the Wellington Arch, the London Eye and the O2 arena were lit up in gold, while Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park was decorated with a 45-ft hand-painted structure of a pyramid designed by Brazilian pop artist Romero Britto to herald the exhibition. Students from Egypt, the UK, Belgium and France worked with the artist on the installation.

To celebrate the great event, another 25ft- high pyramid was placed outside the O2 arena while eight 8ft-tall pyramids were placed around the city. Some Londoners celebrated the event by wearing the nemes head dress of Tutankhamun or decorating their homes with replicas of the boy king's treasures.

Culture Minister Farouk Hosni described the exhibition as a good opportunity to show Egypt's cultural diversity and an opportune moment to express the importance of cultural dialogue. He also acknowledged that the expected revenue of the exhibition would go towards financing restoration projects at various archaeological sites in Egypt as well as helping with the construction of the Great Egyptian Museum overlooking the Giza Pyramids.

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