Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1437, (4 - 10 April 2019)
Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Issue 1437, (4 - 10 April 2019)

Ahram Weekly

A visit to Tutankhamun

David Tresilian joins the queues for the “Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Pharaoh” exhibition in Paris

Visitors queuing in front of the exhibition gate

As Nevine El-Aref wrote in Al-Ahram Weekly last week, there can be few residents or visitors to the French capital who are not aware that the “Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Pharaoh” exhibition has stopped off in Paris on the latest leg of a world tour that has already taken it to the California Science Center in Los Angeles where it opened in March last year. 

In November, the exhibition will be touching down at London’s Saatchi Gallery for a further four-month run before it travels to Sydney in Australia for another six months before returning to Egypt in 2021. The 150 objects from the Tutankhamun collection included in the tour will then be integrated into the new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) on the Giza Plateau that is slated to open to the public later in the same year. 

This may very well be the last time that objects from the Tutankhamun collection go on such a comprehensive world tour, and it has been reflected in the exhibition’s marketing. Not only does it mark almost 100 years since the discovery of the young Pharaoh’s previously unknown tomb by British archaeologist Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank of the Nile at Luxor in 1922, but it also falls some 50 years after the most famous of all Tutankhamun’s world tours, which took place in the 1960s and 1970s and took in destinations that included Paris (1967), London (1972) and New York (1976-1979). 

The earlier tour had seen objects from the Tutankhamun collection hosted at the Petit Palais in central Paris, the British Museum in London, where the exhibition was the most popular ever staged and attracted some 1.6 million visitors, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it attracted some eight million visitors and was the first and thus far the most successful of all the museum’s famous blockbuster shows. 

It triumphantly proved not only that archaeology could be popular, even wildly so in the shape of the “Tut-mania” that especially in the United States accompanied the show, but also that museums themselves could become major leisure destinations and appeal much more widely than to their traditional audiences of scholars and connoisseurs. Perhaps more than any other single exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum’s history, the Tutankhamun exhibition democratised the museum in a way that had been almost unthinkable before.

In Paris, the “Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Pharaoh” exhibition is being hosted at the Grande Halle de la Villette in the capital’s 19th arrondissement, an originally 19th-century iron-and-glass commercial structure that has been adapted and reused as a multi-purpose exhibition and performance venue. It is set within a landscaped area that also includes the main Paris concert hall, music conservatory, science and technology centre and planetarium. It is all a far cry from the Louvre in central Paris, also an adapted building, though this time from its previous use as a royal palace. 

The selection of la Villette as the venue for the exhibition on Tutankhamun suggests that the organisers wanted to escape the solemnity of a traditional museum environment and appeal to the widest possible audience. Joining the queues outside the Grande Halle on a weekday morning, the Weekly found that this was a bet that had well paid off, for in addition to the regular, rather elderly weekday audience, “Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Pharaoh” had also attracted a large number of family groups — young parents, perhaps taking time off work to ensure that their small children had a chance to see the show, as well as grandparents taking grandchildren to the exhibition while their parents were at work.

There were also many school parties, often of primary school-age pupils neatly arranged in groups of two and clutching illustrated notebooks on the treasures of Tutankhamun. There were older school groups waiting patiently for their appointed entry time — visitors are advised to purchase timed tickets in advance — and passing the time by consulting Internet materials and taking selfies of each other on mobile phones.

The atmosphere, expectant and good-humoured, continued within the walls of the Grande Halle itself, where visitors, reminded of exhibition etiquette, were treated to large-scale video projections of the Valley of the Kings. Some of these were of hot-air balloon trips above the Nile at Luxor, a marvellous experience for those with a head for heights and an unforgettable perspective on the stark boundary between the green fertility of the Nile Valley and the biscuit-coloured desert land stretching out beyond.

Statuette of Tutankhamun

THE EXHIBITION: Entering the exhibition, visitors may be reminded of the legendary moment when on 26 November 1922 Carter accompanied by his aristocratic British sponsor Lord Carnarvon first entered the tomb of the ancient Egyptian boy-king Tutankhamun. 

While the air in the tomb would probably not have been entirely that of more than 3,000 years ago when the ancient Egyptian priests had sealed it up as far as they knew for all eternity, one can still imagine the sense of mystery and privilege that Carter, Carnarvon, and other members of their team must have experienced on entering a space and breathing air that had last had human visitors in 1323 BCE.

The exhibition uses modern technology to try to reproduce that sense of wonder for today’s audiences, with the first room featuring a 360-degree video presentation of the history and discovery of the tomb. Once within the show itself, visitors are greeted by a dramatically lit statue of the god Amun protecting Tutankhamun, borrowed from the Louvre, before passing through into the second room and a selection from the 150 objects included in the show, all of them taken from the more than 5,000 discovered in the tomb and slated for permanent display in the GEM.

The display aptly negotiates the different priorities facing any major museum show. Some visitors will doubtless want to emerge having learned more about ancient Egyptian kingship and burial practices and above all about what is known about the enigmatic figure of the boy king Tutankhamun. Others, like the school parties on the day the Weekly visited, may have more narrowly defined aims, having been asked by their teachers to find particular objects or information. 

Others still, probably the majority, may simply want to be in the presence, even separated by the glass of the display cases, of objects from the tomb, their mysterious aura being the pull factor that year after year, decade after decade, brings tens of thousands of visitors face-to-face with the objects found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Photographs in books or on the Internet, whatever their quality, cannot substitute for the experience of seeing the physical objects. The exhibition organisers, knowing this, have ensured that each object, unusually well displayed, can be viewed in the round and has been given space to breath.

Many visitors were heard to comment on how extraordinarily well-preserved the pieces were, perhaps especially, and most amazingly, the wooden objects on show. As is well-known, the ancient Egyptian priests, other-worldly in many ways, were also touchingly down-to-earth, even literal-minded, when it came to provisioning the Pharaohs’ tombs. They provided the tables, chairs, beds and other medium-sized domestic items that the king would surely require in the afterlife as well as the chariots, armour and weapons that he would want on outdoor occasions. 

In addition to formal suits, he would also want everyday wear, they must have thought, rather like people putting together wedding lists and adding household items like knives, forks and spoons. In any case, Tutankhamun’s household furniture, much of it made of inlaid wood, was of the highest possible quality, and seen close to it looks as if it could have been made yesterday so completely preserved has it been by the dry air of his desert tomb. 

The exhibition’s rooms follow a loose narrative line recounting the death, burial, and resurrection of the boy king Tutankhamun. Room four includes gilded figures of the king engaged in some of the activities that he presumably enjoyed in his earthly life and that it was assumed he would enjoy in the next one too, including riding atop a black panther and wrestling a lion (maybe he did not actually engage in those activities) and harpooning fish from a boat on the Nile.

Room five focuses on the voyage through the afterlife in a display centred around a magnificent guardian statue of the king’s ka, or soul. Subsequent rooms look at mummification practices and include some of the smaller objects found in the tomb, including the ushabti figurines that were thought of as attending to the king’s needs in the afterlife. Various pieces of jewelry received attention from many visitors because of their astonishingly fine workmanship and immaculate state of conservation.  

In the exhibition’s final rooms, Carter, Carnarvon  and the discovery of the tomb re-enter the picture, with the organisers summarising the two Englishmen’s involvement and Tutankhamun’s subsequent afterlife as a kind of ambassador of ancient and modern Egypt worldwide. This cannot have been the afterlife the ancient Egyptian priests had had in mind when they interred his royal body in his Theban tomb, but perhaps they would not have minded, so successfully has Tutankhamun performed his role more than 3,000 years after he died.  

One exits the final room with a head full of ancient Egyptian imagery, feeling slightly melancholy at thinking how death-directed the ancient Egyptian religion seems to have been. But then one remembers how positively life-affirming it was also, since the afterlife was always conceived of as being a kind of perfected and immutable version of the present one, except as little subject to tarnishing and decay as the gold used in the objects in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Toutânkhamon, le trésor du pharaon, Grande Halle de la Villette, Paris, until 15 September. 

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