Discovering Tutankhamun, Ashmolean Museum.

Ashmolean Museum.
24th July – 2nd November 2014.
Tickets: £4.50 – £10.00.

The Ashmolean Museum’s current exhibition breathes new life into the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. With a unique mix of archaeological artefacts, archive material and early twentieth century memorabilia, Discovering Tutankhamun succeeds in weaving together the many different histories and stories that have become associated with the tomb over time. The wealth of archival material on display, much of which is being shown in public for the first time, adds a new and exciting perspective to this well-known tale.

The exhibition is divided into three sections. The first tells the story of the discovery and the detailed recording of the tomb and its contents, set to a spectacular backdrop of Harry Burton’s original photographs. The floor to ceiling reproductions of these images, found on every wall, reflect the excitement and energy of the discovery with beautiful and breath-taking clarity. While many will be familiar with the role played by Howard Carter and his patron Lord Carnarvon, this section also draws attention to the many people involved in the archaeological process. From photographing and conserving the finds, to conducting the autopsy, Howard Carter’s team of specialists are shown as ahead of their time in their approach. Their story is told through the meticulous and methodical records they kept: diaries, plans, photographic negatives, notes, and drawings, all demonstrate the skill and patience that was required of them.

The accompanying book by exhibition curators Paul Collins and Liam McNamara.

The accompanying book by exhibition curators Paul Collins and Liam McNamara.

The second section explores how the news of the discovery was received world-wide and the wave of ‘Tut-mania’ that was to follow. The room is visually dominated by art-deco set dressings and a projection of original film footage from outside the tomb’s entrance, while an audio soundtrack of the song ‘Old King Tut’, released in 1923, successfully captures the atmosphere of the period. Here the visitor is treated to newspaper reports, exhibition posters, and fan letters, as well as fashions inspired by the discovery and items relating to the intrigue surrounding Tutankhamun’s death. Importantly, this section includes a discussion on ‘Tutankhamun and modern politics’ which explores the reaction of Egyptian nationalists at the time, its links to Egypt’s independence, and the important consequences the discovery had for Egyptian politics. It’s a fascinating and poignant contrast to the reaction of the West that I wish could have been explored in greater detail.

The third and final section focusses on archaeological context, introducing visitors to ‘Tutankhamun and his time’ through an examination of the time periods surrounding Tutankhamun’s rule. In this gallery a selection of objects from the Ashmolean’s permanent collection, alongside those on loan from the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, tell the story of the Amarna period, the return to orthodoxy, and how Tutankhamun’s name was almost lost to history. These objects are displayed in the Ashmolean’s characteristic fine arts style, with single objects well lit upon pedestal showcases, which gives you a chance to examine every intricate detail and maker’s mark. This section is concluded by returning to the present, discussing the importance of preserving the tomb in Egypt as well as the archival records housed at the Griffith Institute.

In the 75th anniversary year of the Griffith Institute at the University of Oxford, it is wonderful to see an exhibition that celebrates the relationship between archaeology and the archive. It is equally wonderful to see archives taking centre stage in an exhibition. What Discovering Tutankhamun provides is a master class in how to interpret and display archival material. Not only are there elegant mounts and excellent environmental conditions, but their use in audio soundtracks, big bold graphics and recreations of in-situ displays really adds to the dynamic, immersive, and almost theatrical experience that this exhibition has to offer.