Patricia Cleveland-Peck has an unforgettable experience when she sees this exciting new exhibition
“Wonderful things!” such was Howard Carter’s exclamation when asked what he could see when, in 1922, he peered into Tutankhamun’s tomb for the first time – and it would be a jaded visitor who did not echo his sentiment on viewing this exhibition.
In fact what Howard Carter actually saw was a jumble of miscellaneous objects, dusty and worn from having been buried for centuries, while what we see in this exhibition are some of these same items cleaned, burnished and returned to the pristine state they were in when they accompanied Tutankhamun on his journey to the afterlife.
In spite of the whopping ticket prices, for which it has already been criticised, from the queue cordons outside, the Saatchi is obviously expecting hordes of visitors. One has therefore, to weigh up the fact that this exhibition, which is travelling to 10 countries, represents that last opportunity of seeing Tutankhamun artefacts without travelling to Egypt. Is it worth it?
We see 150 of these exquisite items (there were over 5000 of them in the tomb) well displayed, some enhanced by fibre-optic case lighting and can only wonder at the craftsmanship of the Egyptians at this early date. We see the imposing life-sized ‘guardian,’ statue, one of the pair which flanked the sealed entrance to the burial chamber and one of the first things Carter saw. His black skin contrasting with his gold eyes, and golden clothing he makes an imposing figure. In fact the dazzle of gold, gilded wood, coloured glass, cornelians, lapis, obsidian and other precious stones used in intricate designs is spellbinding. The majority were made with amazing finesse and delicacy – I found the graceful statue of Tutankhamun on the back of a panther particularly moving – a young life cut short.
Some of the objects are purely funerary, like the miniature canoptic coffin in which Tutankhamun’s liver was stored. Made from gold, coloured glass and cornelian, the mask of this has been used on the posters for this exhibition, the more famous golden mask remaining in Egypt. Some exquisite items, on the other hand are amulets and magic charms which were placed between the layers of bandage on the mummy to protect the deceased on his way to the afterlife. A particularly lovely golden wesek collar depicting a vulture with spread wings conferred the necessary magic properties to safeguard the wearer on his perilous journey to the afterlife.
Other objects were things the pharaoh would need to sustain him on his voyage, some quite mundane including loaves of bread, wine, beds, chairs, boats and clothing. We also see beautifully crafted examples of shabtis, the miniature figures of servants which upper-class Egyptians took with them on their last journey in order to be waited upon. Tutankhamun had over 400 of them.
As well as displaying these objects, the exhibition does a good job in guiding us gently through the puzzling labyrinth of Ancient Egyptian funerary customs. Replicas of the wall paintings of the tomb adorn the gallery walls, texts including spells from the Book of the Dead, animations, projections, graphics, videos and soundscapes which change from gallery to gallery, all help to evoke a sense of journey.
We are also given an outline of Tutankhamun’s life and in the last gallery, we see his huge statue which was defaced by Horemheb, the last king of the Eighteenth Dynasty. He attempted to remove every trace of Tutankhamun and his father, the rebel pharaoh Amenhoptep IV/ Akhenaten. hoping he would be forgotten. Ironically he became the best-known pharaoh of all time.
In fact, the only slight drawback I found was that the layout, which, with lifts and corridors in between the galleries, slightly broke the magic of the ambience as well a being a bit confusing. That being said, there are legions of staff to guide one on the way.
This is not a stuffy, scholarly exhibition but one curated to appeal to the 21st-century visitor, which of course it should do at the exorbitant ticket price. It is however, somewhat consoling to learn that proceeds of this tour are going toward the new Grand Egyptian Museum due to open next year at Giza and provide a permanent home for the Tutankhamun collection which will not leave Egypt again.
All in all, unforgettable.
Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh presented by Viking Cruises is at the Saatchi Gallery from 2 November 2019 to 3 May 2020. Ticket purchase link: www.tutankhamun-london.com
Tickets: adult peak time from £28.50, off-peak £24.50.
Children under 3 free, children 3-12 peak time from £19.50, off-peak £16.50.
Concessions peak time £26.00, off-peak £22.50
(All plus booking fee)
Catalogue, audio guide and special VR ‘experience’ (of being in the tomb) all extra.
Saatchi Gallery, Duke of Yorks HQ, King’s Road Chelsea SW3 4RY
The book is available on Amazon, go to this link for more information and to buy