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.


Understanding Egyptian Collections, part 1.

At the beginning of September I attended the Understanding Egyptian Collections conference at the Ashmolean Museum. This two day international conference, organised by the Ashmolean’s Conservation Department in partnership with Oxford ASPIRE and ICON, explored innovative display and research projects in museums with a focus on conserving, displaying, understanding and interpreting Egyptian collections. Over the next few blog posts I hope to highlight some of the main themes from this conference.

Ashmolean Re-Development.

Ancient Egypt and Nubia gallery guide.

The first two sessions of the conference celebrated the Ashmolean’s ancient Egypt and Nubia galleries which opened in November 2011. Assistant Keeper for Ancient Egypt and Sudan, Liam McNamara, opened the conference with an overview of the collection and re-development.

The 16 month refurbishment project gave the Museum an opportunity to improve showcases, lighting and environmental controls, as well as introduce a clearer layout to the galleries and new contextualising interpretation. The re-development was also instrumental in improving documentation and storage of the collection. Liam McNamara explained how the first three months of the project was spent packing and removing 35,000 objects from the gallery, some of which had been stored beneath the original showcases. The team created an ‘Egypt Decant Database’ to record objects as they were removed, unique barcodes were introduced to improve location control, and existing stores were refitted to provide space for decanted objects. The opening session provided a great insight into how the re-development of galleries can have a greater impact and legacy beyond what is seen on display.

Inter-Disciplinary Collaborations.

Richard B. Parkinson, Professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford and Director of the Griffith Institute, provided the keynote lecture entitled ‘Egyptology Beyond the Institutional Divide’. Within this lecture, Professor Parkinson emphasised the importance of increasing inter-disciplinary relationships, bridging the gap between museum and academic spheres in order to overcome Egyptology’s institutionalisation and sometimes outdated 19th century paradigms. The intellectual relationship between the curator and conservator was highlighted as particularly significant, creating a dialogue that would allow a greater appreciation and understanding of an object’s physical materiality, as well as a vital step towards engaging wider audiences. In the Griffith Institute’s 75th anniversary year, it was poignant that collaborations between Egyptology and archives were also discussed, with the conclusion that such a wealth of documentation can help us to historicize not only individual objects but the entire discipline also.

Research Projects.
Understanding Egyptian Collections conference.

Marie Svoboda, from the J. Paul Getty Museum in California, introduced the new Ancient Panel Paintings: Examination, Analysis and Research (APPEAR) project. In collaboration with international partners, this four year study (2013-2017) aims to build a database for the comparative study of ancient mummy portraits, and similar material types, in collections around the world. The team have estimated that there are at least 1,028 mummy portraits in museums and private collections world-wide, and they hope that this study will allow researchers to compare examples in terms of historical and contextual information. In addition to the online database the project team is planning a conference in 2017, including practical workshops, and there is even the possibility of an exhibition to present and discuss the findings of the study.

Jennifer Marchant and Abigail Granville, from the Fitzwilliam Museum, spoke about their on-going project to analyse the pigments used on ancient Egyptian coffins. This presentation focussed on their use of Fibre Optic Reflectance Spectroscopy (FORS), a non-invasive means of identifying organic and inorganic pigments. The speakers highlighted the benefit of FORS as an initial assessment: this surface technique is non-invasive and portable, it carries low risk to the object with low, brief light exposures, it can identify pigments both on their own and in mixes, and has the potential to analyse binding media and coatings, albeit beyond the scope of this project. The results of this research will provide technical evidence to support the Fitzwilliam Museum’s forthcoming exhibition ‘Death on the Nile’, planned for Spring 2016.

Development Projects.

Mohamed Gamal Rashed, Museum Display and Research Director for the Grand Egyptian Museum project, introduced current designs and concepts behind some of the permanent galleries under development. The talk focussed on two permanent introductory galleries: the meet-and-greet gallery and the grand staircase, a vertical display space showcasing key ‘discovery’ objects. The Museum aims to unite Egypt’s past and present, explore matters of Egyptian identity and highlight Egypt’s responsibility in protecting its own heritage. The Grand Egyptian Museum, one of the largest museum development projects in the world, is currently under construction and is due to open in 2017.

Exhibitions on Egypt 2014: What to see this year.

Happy New Year! 2013 saw some excellent exhibitions on Egypt across the United Kingdom and, with a fair few announced already, this year promises to be just as exciting. Here is a selection of temporary exhibitions to look out for in 2014.

A Fusion of Worlds: Ancient Egypt, African Art and Identity in Modernist Britain.
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London.
11th March – 24th May 2014.

This exhibition considers the influence of ancient Egypt and African art upon the work of modernist artists, including Jacob Epstein, Edna Manley and Ronald Moody, and explores the wider socio-political and cultural contexts in which their art is situated.

A Fusion of Worlds looks set to continue the Petrie Museum’s tradition of thought-provoking, cross-disciplinary exhibitions, with a focus on community involvement. Co-curated by Gemma Romain (UCL Geography) and Debbie Challis (UCL Museums and Collections), in partnership with a group of community participants, this exhibition will provide new insights into the reception of ancient Egypt as well as some interesting accompanying events, including a gallery talk with artist Edna Manley (15th March) and a ‘Meet the Curators’ talk (8th April).

Discovering Tutankhamun.

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
24th July – 26th October 2014.

The Ashmolean’s much-anticipated summer exhibition will tell the story behind the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb through a mix of archival and archaeological material, covering the search for the tomb, its excavation, documentation and reception.

Planned to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Oxford’s Griffith Institute of Egyptology, Discovering Tutankhamun will feature Howard Carter’s original records and photographs from the archive. According to the Griffith Institute’s blog this will be the first time they have been “presented as a whole to the public.” This exciting collaboration should provide a unique perspective on this iconic story in what will undoubtedly be a very popular exhibition.

Advanced booking now available.

Ancient Lives: New Encounters with Egypt and Sudan (title tbc).
British Museum, London.
22nd May – 30th November 2014.

Following the success of the British Museum’s recent interactive exhibit on Gebelein Man (November 2012 – March 2013), this exhibition will take a closer look at physical anthropology, highlighting the role of new technologies and scientific analysis in exploring the ancient lived experience.

This exhibition plans to tell the story of eight people who lived in ancient Egypt and Sudan between 3500BC and 1500AD, interpreting their life, death and mummification through a combination of archaeological artefacts, interactive exhibits and digital media. There is still very little information about this exhibition, and the title and dates may be subject to change, so don’t forget to keep an eye on their website in the next few months for further details.

Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East.
The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London.
31st October 2014 – 22nd February 2015.

Previously on display at the Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, in Edinburgh (March – July 2013), Cairo to Constantinople continues its tour of the UK royal collections with a trip to Buckingham Palace.

This exhibition documents the Prince of Wales’ (Edward VII) grand tour of the Middle East in 1862 through the eyes of photographer Francis Bedford. Exploring the Prince’s journey through Egypt, Palestine and the Holy Land, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece, it promises to provide a fascinating insight into Victorian Britain’s relationship with the region and place Egypt firmly within its Middle Eastern context. The exhibition also has some excellent online content featuring a selection of photographs, documents and stories from the archive.

Advanced booking now available.