“Discovering Tutankhamun” Ashmolean, Oxford, 24th Jul-2nd Nov

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The publicity for the special exhibition, tickets £10, is perhaps slightly misleading as it may lead some to expect a blockbuster show about Tutankhamun, whose intact tomb was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. This is in many ways a more intellectual show based as it is on documents from the Howard Carter Archive, housed in the adjacent Griffith Institute. Oxford is one of the world’s centers for the study of Egyptology, and has a permanent (and free) exhibition of Egyptian masterpieces on the ground floor.

This show is based on documents from the Carter Archive, diaries, letters archaeological plans, paintings and knickknacks all associated with the year of the sensation. I’d read summaries of Carter’s diary for the fateful week in November during what was to be the concessions final season of work in the Valley of Kings. They have toiled for several years but found very little. At the eleventh hour, they make the archaeological discovery of the century, a coincidence that has excited many a “conspiracy” theorist. On show is Carter’s diary, the entry is terse, just one line “blah blah”, next to it is his actual long hand Journal in which he takes more time to tell the story, this is the famous much quoted paragraph:

“…as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.”
Howard Carter, Tomb of Tutankhamen.

The exhibit continues in much the same vein, we are really seeing the behind the scenes work of the team rather than the front of house discovery. We see the “wonderful” things but from backstage. Carter was an archaeological artist and illustrator. People with his skills do much of the recording of any Egyptian discovery, painstakingly making accurate drawings of the objects as they are found. This was before the advent of reliable colour photography, so talented water-colourists were also on site, painting as many objects as they can or recreating entire scenes from the tomb decorations. Thus we do not see the famous “painted box”, one of the very first objects to be recovered from the tomb, for that you need to go to Cairo Museum. What we do see are Nina De Garis’s precise watercolours of this or of a priceless pectoral jewel etc. It has to be said that many of these paintings are works of art in their own right.

The exhibition continues in much the same vein, filling three large galleries with blowups of rare photographs, or setups of the laboratory equipment used to experiment with techniques not yet invented in order to conserve the objects before 35 centuries of lost time destroyed them forever. Plans and drawings, accurate replicas, colourisations. Then finally the contemporary reception of the material in pop culture, Hollywood movies, art deco fabrics and jewelry .. .

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For those hoping to see more of the wonderful, visual culture of the Tomb, there are one or two small wonders. Several small fragmentary carvings are on loan for the exhibition, material connected with King Tutankhamuns fascinating father Amenhotep IV, more well known to us as the “Trotsky” like king Akhenaten, and his wife, Nefertiti, the most beautiful women in the ancient world.

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Akhenaten is a figure of history but not of memory, all memory of his existence was “airbrushed” from history by the counter-reformation that followed the death of Tutankhamun, or as objects on show demonstrate, a process that was initiated during the short reign of this boy king himself.

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There are maybe a few dozen of these artifacts on show, which is less than we’ve come to expect in Egyptian expo, we want them piled high, cabinets groaning with treasure. But as I’ve written elsewhere, modern museum philosophy is that less is more, each object should be given more space, forcing us to pay more attention because of its uniqueness.
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So, once one gets over an initial disappointment that this is not what one was expecting, there are afterall real treasures here. The design of the show, with handy booklets with the text of all the labels in readable form, is a welcome innovation. It probably could do with some gallery talks and tours to ease visitors into the vibe. It could also benefit from a good looking “talking head” to open the ways with a BBC documentary. One startling fact, only 30% of the tomb has been published and studied. Like many, one of the first books on Egyptology I read was Howard Carter’s masterly attempt at that, where I was as much fascinated by his  descriptions of how the  technicians got the stuff out of the mountain, as much as the wonderful things themselves. One also reads of how King Tutankhamun’s mummy was in effect hacked to pieces in a frenzy of “scientific” analysis. But one way or another fascinating and vital material – all here.  Mogg Morgan

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