A blockbuster exhibition of the treasures of Tutankhamun and other ancient Egyptian artefacts from the Cairo Museum has been travelling the world recently. However, the one thing that everyone wants to see, one of the most iconic artworks of all time, will not be on display.
The last time Tutâ€™s treasures travelled, almost thirty years ago, the tour inspired the kind of Egyptomania that had not been seen since the discovery of the tomb itself in 1922. It had a huge impact on many people. Although it happened before I was even born, my mother still has the King Tut mugs that she had bought at the exhibition in Toronto and my godmother was able to give me the newspaper clippings about it that she had saved, perhaps because of some mysterious prescience of my future passion but more likely just because it was widely acknowledged as the most exciting exhibition of the era. The current tour is enjoying huge success, smashing attendance records, and raising a huge amount of badly needed money for the museums in Egypt.
It is due to visit the former Millennium Dome in London in November and is generating a lot of interest already. A couple of months ago, when I was in the British Museum with one of the curators, random staff members kept stopping us to ask about the exhibit! Unfortunately, everyone seems incredibly let down when they learn that the famous golden death mask will not be a part of the exhibition as it is too fragile to travel. Iâ€™ve even heard people wonder why anyone would bother to go! While it IS disappointing, Iâ€™d prefer NOT to see it rather than risking destroying one of the most precious artefacts in the entire world. Itâ€™s an extra incentive to travel to Egypt itself and there will be lots at the exhibition that will make up for itâ€”the tomb was overflowing with beautiful objects, and the tour will bring attention to the many treasures that are often overlooked, as well as other non-Tut items too.
But while Egypt is not allowing the death mask to travel, in the meantime, it is demanding that other museums around the world send famous Egyptian objects back to their homeland. Zahi Hawass is asking to borrow the Rosetta Stone and the bust of Nefertiti, among other items. And while some museums are planning to acquiesce, the Berlin Museum is refusing, stirring up a furore in Egypt.
Although a number of Germans are actively supporting the loan, the Berlin Museum is using the same argument that the Egyptians used for keeping Tutâ€™s death mask from travellingâ€”it claims that the Nefertiti bust is too fragile to travel. This could quite possibly true. However, Zahi Hawass is not convinced and is threatening to declare the bust stolen property and start legal action to have it returned to Egypt permanently.
I think that the loan concept is an incredibly good one, allowing Egyptians the opportunity to see the objects without asking museums to give up their prize attractions, and I really hope that all the requests can be honoured. The politics of the whole situation are incredibly complex though, and what with the famous Elgin Marbles controversy, it is possible that Berlin fears that the Egyptians would attempt to keep the bust for good if they handed it over. Apparently, the British Museum isnâ€™t afraid of this though and it taking the request for the Rosetta Stone under serious consideration.
Loaning artefacts is a good compromise between Egypt and the museums, but I hope that people respect that the safety of the treasures themselves should not be compromised for the sake of this project.