The mystery of the golden boy-king Tutankhamun has stirred worldwide curiosity since the discovery of his tomb in 1922. This week, the “Tutankhamun, Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh” exhibition arrived in London to fascinate visitors yet again.
Opening last Friday night at the Saatchi Gallery, the exhibition has led to London’s being taken over by Tutmania. Streets, shops, buses and metro stations, the façades of buildings, hotels and restaurants were all plastered with posters of the symbolic golden coffin of the boy-king, one of the pieces in the exhibition, or of a gilded wooden statuette depicting him riding a black leopard.
Other posters showed the Ka, a wooden guardian statue with gilded head-dress and skirt and gold jewellery studded with precious stones.
The golden sarcophagus of Tutankhamun and the face of the boy-king were on the front pages of many British newspapers and magazines, some of which devoted supplements to Tutankhamun’s treasures and the discovery of his tomb.
Queues of visitors stretched out of the Saatchi Gallery’s doors last week, waiting for their chance to explore the golden boy-king exhibition featuring 150 pieces, 60 of which have never left Egypt before.
Its theatrical design and exhibition scenario help to reconstruct the path of the king into the afterlife. Dramatically laid out in nine galleries on two levels, the exhibition relates the story of one of the most perplexing kings in ancient Egyptian history almost 3,300 years ago.
Each section showcases the dazzling craftsmanship of the ancient artisans that characterised earlier Tutankhamun exhibitions.
The exhibition will also be the last time Tutankhamun’s treasures are on display in Britain. They will return to Egypt after the completion of the exhibition’s world tour to be put on display at the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) along with the rest of boy-king’s collection.
“There is a very old and strong love between Tutankhamun and the British people,” said Khaled El-Enany, Egypt’s minister of antiquities, during his speech at the opening of the exhibition attended by 1,000 prominent British figures among them British entrepreneur Francis Boulle, the eighth earl of Carnarvon whose ancestor financed the original expedition to Egypt, Lady Fiona Carnarvon, British actor Andrew Cooper, British politician Philip Hammond, and British tennis player Heather Watson.
Egyptian professional footballer Ahmed Hegazi who plays for the UK Championship League club West Bromwich Albion and the Egyptian national team attended the opening ceremony.
Egyptians professional footballer Mohamed Salah who plays for the Premier League club Liverpool, footballer Ahmed Al-Mohamadi, and footballer Mahmoud Trézéguet who plays for the Premier League club Aston Villa were not able to attend the opening ceremony as they had a match to play.
El-Enany described the exhibition as a curtain-raiser for the opening of the GEM in Cairo next year, which for the first time in history will display all of Tutankhamun’s treasures under one roof. Previously, there had been little more than a third of the boy-king’s treasure on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo’s Tahrir Square at any given time.
“The exhibition is a message of peace from the Egyptian people to the British people, telling them that we are waiting for you to visit Egypt, to visit our archaeological sites, our new discoveries, and the GEM,” El-Enany said.
He said that the London event was the third leg of a touring exhibition of Tutankhamun’s collection across the world, marking the centenary of the discovery of his tomb in 1922.
Previous legs attracted 700,000 visitors in Los Angeles and more than 1.4 million in Paris, breaking the record in France for cultural exhibitions. “The second show attracted double the amount of visitors as the first,” El-Enany pointed out, adding that he wanted 2.4 million people to attend the show in London.
BACKGROUND TO THE SHOW: According to managing director for exhibitions at the IMG Company that organised the show, John Norman, the company is targeting to attract two million visitors from the UK.
Norman told Al-Ahram Weekly that with the high demand for the London exhibition and with almost 300,000 tickets sold, the opening hours of the exhibition had been extended so visitors would be able to admire the treasures earlier in the morning and into the evenings.
El-Enany also addressed the British and international media in his speech, saying they should not stay silent about the looting and illegally smuggled artefacts that had been seen in recent years and that they should extend a hand to protect the heritage of humanity and preserve it for future generations.
He highlighted recent discoveries in Egypt and the inaugurations of archaeological projects carried out by the ministry last year. He also invited the British public to visit Egypt to see the transportation of the royal mummies from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in the Cairo district of Fustat.
Former minister of antiquities Zahi Hawass announced in his speech at the opening that he and Italian author Francesco Santocono had co-written the script for an opera dedicated to Tutankhamun, with music composed by Italian composer Lino Zimbone. It will be presented at the opening ceremony of the GEM in 2020.
“It would be nice to stage it also in the Valley of the Kings in 2022 to mark the centenary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb,” Hawass said.
He said that the opera explored the death of Tutankhamun’s father Akhenaten, his ascension to the throne, and his attempted murder by queen Nefertiti upon her discovering that none of her six daughters could be monarch of Egypt.
The production also tells the story of Tutankhamun’s coronation and his untimely death at 19 years old.
Meanwhile, the entrance to the Saatchi Gallery exhibition was glittering with the name of Tutankhamun, while the exhibition halls themselves had been transformed into an ancient Egyptian necropolis with dark walls and soft lighting.
Giant screens showed films documenting the work of British archaeologist Howard Carter in discovering the intact tomb of Tutankhamun and its treasures in 1922, taking visitors back in time to the early 20th century with strains of oriental music filling the air in the display areas.
Before going into the exhibition, visitors enter an immersive environment that begins with an introductory film on a 180-degree screen meant to transport them to the Valley of the Kings on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor where Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered.
The camera sweeps across the mountainous desert landscape. Groups of men studying maps, digging rocks, or sifting sand are shown. Visitors then enter the first room of the exhibition proper, where images, lighting and sound are used to create the impression of the imminent finds.
In the nine galleries of the exhibition that follow on two levels, guests pass through the six gates of the underworld as they travel with the king on his journey to eternity. Along the way, they encounter good-luck amulets, weapons meant to fight off demons, alabaster containers of oils that the ancient Egyptians believed enabled the king to see and hear in the underworld, and figurines of gods meant to guide and protect him.
The second gallery is dedicated to the gods. It is here that visitors find the most impressive pieces, including the king’s guardian, a powerful black-and-gold statue that has watched over the king’s sleep for nearly three millennia, and a delicate miniature sarcophagus that contained his embalmed viscera.
Then comes the king’s rebirth, illustrated by an arch of light evoking the journey of the god Re from sunrise to zenith. This room presents the fabulous treasures found in the boy-king’s burial chamber, including bracelets, tiaras, amulets and ornaments in which gold and precious stones mingle.
The penultimate part, using video and digital images, evokes the discovery and study of the mummy. The last room leaves visitors facing a colossus in stone representing the boy-king. 3D scans of objects are shown on video screens on top of the display cases, so viewers can zoom in and spin objects on screen for an interactive experience.
“There’s a lot more technology in this exhibition when it comes to being able to help tell the story. With these videos, visitors really get to see these objects in a way they have never seen them before,” Norman said.
He added that the exhibition used multimedia displays to stimulate interest in the science related to archaeology. Visitors also learn how the scientific analysis of the boy-king’s 3,000-year-old mummy had revealed new information about his health and lineage, as well as how cutting-edge archaeological tools were assisting in discovering tombs and analysing existing ones in ways never before imagined, he said.
The last galleries in the show focus on the discovery of the tomb itself and the history of Egyptian archaeology, along with new scientific analyses of the mummy.
These are provided through a video table showing scan data of Tutankhamun’s mummy. The scans are from 2005, but advances in technology have made it possible to glean more information from them, including that Tutankhamun had a club foot and an impacted wisdom tooth. New DNA testing shows that the young king also suffered from malaria and had a badly broken left leg above the knee that pierced his skin. This likely resulted in the infection that caused his death.
The exhibition takes visitors through the afterlife, visualising it through objects from the tomb. It combines technology, music and animation in novel ways. “We have used a lot of technology in the exhibition,” Norman added, describing it as “a very theatrical experience”.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.