Thursday, 24 July 2014

For the Love of Tut: Discovering Tutankhamun at the Ashmolean Museum

'There is only one topic of conversation... one cannot escape the name of Tut-Ankh-Amun anywhere...'
New York Times, 1923

I had the pleasure of attending the private view of the 'Discovering Tutankhamun' exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum yesterday; a major Egyptological event which delighted the media and the hundreds of guests who enjoyed the great hospitality of the Museum as well as a sneak-peak at the Museum's summer exhibition. 

The exhibition was officially opened by the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, whose rousing speech followed those of Christopher Brown (Ashmolean Director) and Prof. Richard Parkinson (Professor of Egyptology, University of Oxford). 

On entering the exhibition the visitor is introduced to a gallery space showcasing Howard Carter and his work in Egypt before the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb - the project which subsequently became his life's pursuit. A personal favourite is a famous painting from Carter's work at the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri in Thebes showing a beautifully reproduced Horus falcon. 

The background setting moves rapidly into the wonderful discovery, told through diary entries and correspondence, which Carter made on November 4th 1922 - the first step leading down to the tomb, which he and the 5th Earl of Carnarvon entered three weeks later. 

The beauty of the exhibition is that it tells the story of the discovery by intertwining ancient and contemporary objects with rare archive material from the Griffith Institute, and in doing so effectively illustrates the different stages of discovery, study and conservation, and ultimately the painstaking removal of the many hundreds of objects from the tomb, not to mention the politics associated with such an overwhelmingly vast task.

This technique of display highlights the different roles of those individuals involved in the project - artists, conservators, linguists, scientists, and photographers: the products of Harry Burton's pioneering photographic work in particular formed impressive backdrops to the gallery. I was pleased to see Griffith archive material that I'd never seen before, including beautiful and incredibly detailed artwork of some of the finds from the tomb by Nina de Garis Davies and Winifred Brunton

The exhibition then transports the visitor back in time to the 1920s, when 'Tut-Mania' took over the world. This immersive experience includes cases full of Egyptianising and Tut-inspired products from the UK and beyond, including a Cartier brooch in the form of a winged scarab and some tiny ladies' gloves embroidered with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, all while listening to the original recording of 'Old King Tut' by William Jerome and Harry von Tilzer from the height of Tut-Mania in 1923. 

It was also fascinating to see the general public's reception of the great discovery - from letters written to Carter asking for 'souvenirs' from the tomb, to those wishing him luck and giving him tips on how to avoid the 'Curse of the Pharaoh' which had already 'claimed' Lord Carnarvon. Contemporary newspaper articles are also on display, alongside Carter's wooden cabinet full of slides which he used to present the incredible story of his discovery to an insatiable public. 

The exhibition concludes with an overview of Tutankhamun's historical context: the Amarna Period and it's aftermath. Here I was delighted to see objects from Berlin and the Metropolitan Museum which I'd never seen before, as well as large-scale British Museum sculpture in a new display context including a statue of Tutankhamun as a priest of the god Hapy, likely from Karnak (EA 75). My only issue with this display is that the complex history of the period is somewhat condensed in order to fit into that space, but of course if the visitor would like to know more then they can certainly fill their boots in the excellent Amarna Period section of the Museum's newly-redisplayed Egypt and Sudan gallery downstairs. 

A final section introducing the recent facsimile of the tomb made by Factum Arte, and an exhibition of replica objects from the tomb by Semmel Concerts, explores current issues in presenting Tutankhamun and his story to a worldwide audience always thirsty for their own 'Tut' experience. The icing on the cake was seeing digitally coloured versions of the original 1920s black-and-white photography, and the seated portrait of Howard Carter, painted by his brother William, from the Griffith Institute. 

As you might tell there is far too much for me to fit into one post and this is really only skimming the surface of an exhibition truly full of 'wonderful things'; things which have been successfully curated to make the story of 'Discovering Tutankhamun' appeal to the widest possible audience, whilst including all of the finer details necessary for a nuanced discussion of the discovery. 

I'd like to extend grateful thanks to the Ashmolean Museum, and to Liam McNamara for the opportunity to attend the Private View. I look forward to attending the exhibition events due to run over the coming months (the exhibition runs from 24 July 2014 to 2 November 2014) - in the meantime follow #DiscoverTut to find out more and see the exhibition trailer here

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