Pharaoh: Reborn, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
Upper Second Floor, Free Entry.
20th April – 29th September 2013.

The temporary exhibition Pharaoh: Reborn showcases spectacular watercolours copied from the tomb of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings (KV17). Painted at the time of the tomb’s discovery by Giovanni Belzoni’s expedition team, between 1817 and 1820, the watercolours provide an important record of the tomb’s extensive decoration, which has since suffered severe damage. The exhibition displays 30 examples from the series of 300, acquired by the museum in the year 1900, alongside a small selection of objects to provide context in the discussion of tomb building and decoration during the reign of Seti I. All pieces are from the museum’s permanent collection.

The exhibition focuses on the subject of the watercolours, using them as an example to demonstrate the Pharaoh’s journey through the Afterlife, to explain ancient Egyptian beliefs and the role and function of tomb decoration. Presented in a linear narrative with a didactic interpretation style, the visitor is guided through the journey scene-by-scene with each watercolour accompanied by a label describing the content and introducing key mythological figures. While there is no set visitor route around the exhibition both paths lead to a short animated film at the far end of the gallery that brings the Mysterious Cavern of Sokaris to life.

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In a move away from the more traditional archaeological display Pharaoh: Reborn adopts more of a fine-art aesthetic, suited to its art gallery surroundings on the museum’s second floor. In an architecturally neutral space, light and minimalistic in its design, the watercolours speak for themselves and the colours appear even more vibrant. This approach has ensured that the watercolours remain the focus. While this can often have a de-contextualising effect it does encourage you to view the watercolours in far greater detail and appreciate their value not just as archaeological records but as works of art in their own right.

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Although the history of the watercolour collection has been provided elsewhere by Bristol Museum (found here and here), it is a shame that the exhibition does not explore their object biographies in detail. From their connection to the great eccentric character Giovanni Belzoni and the tales of his expedition, to their famous display in Piccadilly’s Egyptian Hall, their life-cycle adds an extra dimension to their historical and cultural significance. It is also a little disappointing that the exhibition does not fully acknowledge the young draughtsmen and physician, Alessandro Ricci, as the artist.

However, the rationale behind Pharaoh: Reborn was not to comment upon the history of Egyptian archaeology but to accompany the recent touring exhibition Pharaoh: King of Egypt. By re-establishing Seti I as the protagonist of this collection the exhibition formed a valuable and informative counterpart, supporting its aims to “explore the myths and realities of kingship in ancient Egypt”.

The light-sensitive nature of these watercolours means they are very rarely on display and cannot be displayed for any considerable length of time. It was therefore a privilege to be able to see them in person and be close enough to see every brush stroke, blemish and hand-written note. Looking at these watercolours you can truly feel a sense of their history, both in terms of their contribution to early Egyptology and their connection to a Pharaoh’s life story and the masterpiece he commissioned.

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