Wonderful new gallery of Ancient Egyptian Life and Death at the British Museum now open

It may have seemed just a typical grey winter’s day in London yesterday, but in a small room on Great Russell Street some very different scenes were unfolding. Beautifully attired men and women gathered for a banquet, watching musicians and dancers, with huge vats of wine wreathed with floral garlands and tables heavily laden with a rich array of food and bouquets of exotic flowers. Nearby, a family was out together on the water for a pleasure cruise and hunting trip, enjoying the beauties of nature as flocks of brightly coloured birds, fish, and butterflies rose in great swirls of movement around them.

Yesterday at the British Museum, the tomb paintings of Nebamun, some of the most famous images in Egyptian art, were finally unveiled again in a new permanent gallery after 10 years of conservation.

On Tuesday night I attended a reception for the opening of the gallery. It was a moment that many people worked long and hard for, from the conservators to the museum assistants, and not least its curator Richard Parkinson. And it was a triumph. It is not only the extraordinary paintings, beautifully restored, that make the gallery such a success–the remarkable reorganization of their display and the design of the gallery completely transforms the way visitors will interact with the museum’s Egyptian collection.

In the past, hundreds of monumental stone sculptures and crowd-thrilling mummies have dominated the museum’s displays, but now visitors will have a chance to see the Egyptians as ordinary people just like them, filled with hopes, fears, and desires. The design of the gallery with its lovely limestone panelling conveys the feeling of the actual tomb. The gallery is small enough to give it a feeling of intimacy, without feeling confined–I only hope it can withstand the extent of the crowds that often swarm through the museum.

Before the paintings were removed from display for conservation purposes (a complex process that involved everything from removing harmful plaster of paris backing to reversing Victorian ‘corrections’ made to the paintings!), they were previously displayed in frames, arranged along the wall as if in an art gallery. The paintings are now arranged according to their likely original locations in the tomb, exhibited on a slightly reclining angle to protect them. Their new integrated display allows the tomb’s message to speak, rather than imposing a Western concept of art on them. It allows the paintings to be exhibited in a way that conveys a sense of their original connectedness, giving a sense of the original unified design space–a place commemorating Nebamun, where friends and family could visit and bring offerings for his spirit in the afterlife. To further convey the sense of what the tomb would have been like, there is video display of a digital recreation of the site and tomb interior, which should also be online soon in an interactive version.

Another remarkable touch is that if you look through the cases that display daily life objects from that era, you can see through to the paintings hanging beyond and actually see the painted depictions of incredibly similar items being used by Nebamun, his friends, family, and workers. Amazingly the cases containing the paintings themselves use non-reflective glass so there’s no glare to impede your view- it almost feels like the glass isn’t there at all.

Several people spoke during the evening, including the director of the museum and the Times Briton of the Year, Neil MacGregor, who spoke amongst other things about how the gallery would bring visitors in touch with real ancient Egyptian people, for example the amazingly preserved loaf of bread that still bears the fingerprints of the baker.

Sir Ronald Cohen, known as the father of venture capitalism, who generously contributed to the funding of the gallery. His personal involvement in the region is an extraordinary story. Cohen is the British son of a Syrian Jew and was born in Egypt. In 1998, he was presented with Israel’s highest tribute, the Jubilee award, as “one of the visionaries who have done the most to facilitate Israel’s integration into the global economy”, and then in 2005 he established the Portland Trust to help the Palestinians “build up a powerful economy . . . based on a deep level of interdependence with Israel”. He spoke very eloquently about naming it in honour of his father Michael Cohen, a lovely gesture that echoes the image of Nebamun being honoured by his son.

The new Egyptian ambassador to Britain, who officially opened the gallery, used his speech to highlight parallels between the current situation in the Middle East and the Amarna correspondence, written shortly after Nebamun’s life, in which chieftains in the region of Palestine wrote to the Egyptian pharaoh asking for help defending themselves against attacking forces. During the course of the evening, I also spotted Cherie Blair eagerly looking around the gallery.

If you’d like a little taster of what to expect, there are some great videos featuring footage of the paintings and the new gallery itself and interviews with Dr. Richard Parkinson, the Egyptologist who masterminded the whole project at the Telegraph and the Times.

Much has been written about the gallery over the past couple of weeks. One of the most informative is a wonderful piece in the Guardian Weekly in Dr. Parkinson’s own words. There have been numerous other very positive and well-written articles about the gallery, all of which I’ve found interesting reading, for example in the Guardian, and also from an Egyptian perspective,
Over the past few years, I myself was very lucky to have  the amazing opportunity to work the paintings over the summer months that I spent as a curatorial intern at the British Museum. When I was a teenager, I actually had a poster of the painting of Nebamun fowling in the marshes in my room, so needless to say it was an extraordinary experience. One of the things I was able to do was contributing to the descriptions of the paintings  in Chapter Three of the book ‘The Painted Tomb-Chapel of Nebamun: Masterpieces of ancient Egyptian art in the British Museum‘.


The Nebamun tomb paintings in storage
For this task, my fellow intern Ally and I sat in front of them for hours, examining them in minute detail and considering the individual brushstrokes. Every time I looked at them, a new detail would catch my eye. The paintings are incredibly skillfully produced, exhibiting numerous delicate techniques used to produce various textures and effects. But at the same time, they are no means perfect, the erosion of the paint revealing original sketch lines, corrections, and gridlines. There is a liveliness to the innovative composition, tightly interweaving figures to produce both movement and a wonderful sense of harmony. While many of the images are standard scenes that had been appearing in tombs for hundreds of years, the artists managed to breathe fresh life into them, in ways never seen before in Egyptian art.

In the course of their conservation and examination, wonderful details were newly noted that had somehow never been observed before since the paintings arrived at the British Museum 190 years ago, such as the real gold used on the cat’s eye and the green paint on the left-hand side of the garden scene that can be reconstructed as a large sycomore fig tree.

The value of the paintings lies not only in their artistic merit though, but also in what they can tell us about Egyptian life. The gallery isn’t solely devoted to the paintings of the tomb chapel of Nebamun. Under the curatorship of Dr. Richard Parkinson, objects that further illuminate the lives of the people illustrated in the paintings have been woven into the gallery to infuse our understanding of the idealized Egyptian life depicted in the paintings with details of the realities. You can see the colourful painting materials and slightly unwieldy-looking brushes with which the artists worked their magic, as well as the possessions of both the rich and the poor, from fishing nets to board games to dazzling jewellery.

It was very interesting to see the process of choosing the objects to be displayed go through various stages of selection and whittling down. Like most museums, the British Museum can only display a fraction of their collections, partially due to space limitations and repetition of objects, but also because there is a delicate balance to be achieved in what is useful to furthering visitors’ knowledge and how much they can absorb. While it would be nice to include as many objects as possible, cluttering a small space might mean that people miss seeing key artifacts and lose sight of the message the gallery is trying to convey. It’s not just a desire for clarity that can be restrictive though, there is also consideration of the preservation of the objects. The most impressive object that didn’t make it into the final gallery was a magnificent finely-woven linen tunic, which would have needed such low lighting to preserve it from further degradation that you wouldn’t have been able to see the rest of the objects!

One of the other tasks I helped out with in preparation for the new gallery was a final desperate attempt to shed more light on the whereabouts of the lost tomb from which the paintings had been brutally removed so long ago. Although we know Nebamun’s tomb was located in Dra’ Abu el-Naga, we know little more. In vain, I scoured published archaeological records like Friederike Kampp’s survey of Theban tombs for any shred of evidence that might point to a known tomb being a potential location for Nebamun. While there were quite a few other Nebamuns buried in the area, all of them had details that ruled the BM’s Nebamun out. I wasn’t even able to identify a single tomb dated to the right era that was lacking any other defining information. There is a slim possibility that Nebamun’s tomb may still lie buried under further accumulations of debris, waiting to be rediscovered, but it may be so completely destroyed that it will forever remain unidentifiable.

The good news though is that now that the paintings have been restored and put on display again, Nebamun can be rediscovered by millions of people from around the world, and the gallery will breathe life once again into our understanding of the lives of the ancient Egyptians, who were so much more than just the sum of their statues and mummies.


Egyptian Revival in Hollywood

As an Egyptologist, I understand from first-hand experience how captivating Egyptian culture can be, and I find it interesting to contemplate the ways in which Egyptomania seized upon the minds and imaginations of people in the 19th and early 20th centuries and manifested itself in art, architecture, and advertising ranging from the absurd to the sublime. It spread throughout the Western world and beyond, from Europe and North America to Russia and South Africa. There are certainly numerous examples of the craze in London (see my Egyptological map of the city), but some other interesting examples have been featured on the internet lately.

Bonhams’s recently had an Egyptian Revival sale and the pieces that were auctioned can all be viewed on the site here. Some wonderful pieces are actually directly inspired by real Egyptian artifacts, for example this chair modelled on the chair of Sitamun from the tomb of Yuya and Tuya as pictured here, while others provide comedy value with their extravagant over-blown design and heavy-handed interpretations of Egyptian design that bear little resemblance to their supposed origins.

I also stumbled across a very interesting article, purely by chance, mainly about the Egyptian-inspired movie theatres of the United States but also touching on the history of Egyptomania itself. The entire article by Bruce Handy of Vanity Fair is well-worth reading, but the most gripping description is perhaps that of Grauman’s Egyptian Theater and its spectacular role in the very first ever movie premiere. Back in 1922, before the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, when Hollywood was just a sleepy stretch of orchards dotted with a few fledgling movie studios and the joke was that ‘cannonball could be fired down Hollywood Boulevard any time after nine at night and never hit a soul’, it was decided that a movie theatre would be ‘the perfect anchor for commercial development. And not just any movie theater: it would be one of the most spectacular the world had ever seen’.

As Handy states:

‘On October 18, 1922, with newspaper ads promising that “every star and director in the motion picture industry will be there,” Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre was unveiled in all its pharaonic splendor, playing host to the world premiere of Douglas Fairbanks’s Robin Hood.

Grauman theater

Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. Photo by Steve Minor

It was a hell of an evening. The newly installed Hollywood Egyptian Theatre Symphony Orchestra played the overture from Aida. Speeches were given by Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille, Jesse Lasky (one of the founders of the studio that would become Paramount Pictures), and the mayor of Los Angeles. Fairbanks, of course, was in attendance, as was his wife, Mary Pickford, along with John Barrymore and the Talmadge sisters, all of whom had strode down a long red carpet, which had been laid over the theater’s extended courtyard and was flanked by crowds of gawkers and photographers. It was, literally, the original Hollywood premiere. “First night audience rivals Paris in styles”, bragged one Los Angeles paper. “Greatest gathering of kind in Hollywood history”, trumpeted another, describing “a jam of people and motor cars … extending in all directions” while “the picture stars were wildly greeted” and numerous photos taken of the “kaleidoscopic human spectacle.”

The theater was its own kind of kaleidoscope, a riot of hieroglyphs and cenotaphs, animal-headed gods and winged scarabs, bas-relief sphinx heads and a gilded sun-disk ceiling. Even the bathrooms featured what one critic described as “fascinating Egyptian decorations done in the soft reds, blues, and yellows in which this early nation delighted.” The screen itself, one of the interior’s few unadorned surfaces, was framed by four pillars, decorated like papyrus plants and topped by a pair of massive, heavy-looking lintels seemingly awaiting only the fulfillment of an ancient mummy’s curse to tumble down and seal the auditorium in the dust and gloom of millennia. Earlier theaters had had Egyptian elements, but this was ancient Egypt given the full, unabashed Hollywood treatment…

Art and Archaeology declared in 1924 that Grauman’s Egyptian “is not made up of grotesque statues, sphinxes, pyramids, and meaningless signs in lieu of hieroglyphics, but is a replica of real Egyptian art and architecture.”

For a second opinion, [Bruce Handy] asked Richard A. Fazzini, an Egyptologist at the Brooklyn Museum who is also a passionate scholar of Egyptomania, to look at photos of various Egyptian theaters, including Grauman’s. He praised the accuracy of many of that theater’s “playful” design elements, but noted, “Nothing in Egypt ever looked like that as a whole.” He pointed to the decoration of the theater’s massive lintel: “A winged scarab flanked by what—swans? No, that doesn’t work. A winged scarab maybe, but not flanked by swans. I don’t know if they had swans in Egypt, but they didn’t appear in the art really”.’

Grauman’s ignited a vogue for Egyptian-themed theaters in America and in the 1920s some four dozen were built ‘bringing the glories of the Nile to exotica-poor locales such as Brooklyn, Denver, Seattle, Indianapolis, Houston, Milwaukee, and Ogden, Utah’.

Grauman detail

Detail from Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. Photo by Steve Minor

But why did the movie industry in particular seize upon Egyptomania so enthusiastically? The main reason is the obvious coincidence of timing between the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the birth of cinema. As Handy notes: ‘Of negligible import as a pharaoh, Tut nevertheless enjoys one of the ancient world’s highest Q ratings, right up there with Jesus, Mary, Cleopatra, and the first two Caesars. The discovery also unleashed one of the West’s greatest waves of Egyptomania… Filmmakers, then as now not immune to popular taste, released Tut-ankh-Amen’s Eighth Wife and Tut-Tut and His Terrible Tomb, both in 1923. Tin Pan Alley staked its own claim with “Old King Tut Was a Wise Old Nut.”’ However, I think there were several other reasons why Egyptian design became so popular a style for movie theatres and they lie in the nature of the movie industry at the time, how Egypt was perceived and what it represented to people.

Movies were a way of transporting people, allowing them to use their imaginations and escape. Ancient Egypt had already been a popular subject for early filmmakers with five features about Cleopatra alone made between 1908 and 1918. Ancient Egypt was exotic and mysterious; by designing theatres in Egyptian styles, the cinemas themselves became fuel for the imagination, pure escapism in architecture. With cinema in its early stages, studios and theatres wanted to convince people of the industry’s stability and potential for success and longevity. What better association to make than with the eternal land of pyramids and temples? Also, the image Hollywood has always cultivated for itself is one of opulence, and it seems hardly coincidence that the first glamorous red carpet parade happened at the opening of Grauman’s Egyptian Theater, with its rich Egyptian style decor suggesting all the golden wealth of the ancient civilization that Hollywood wished to emulate. Using the motifs of Egyptian design was more than just an architectural fad, they could be used to convey a message to audiences and contribute to the image Hollywood studios wished to present.

Handy also discusses why Egyptian themes were so popular with early America as a nation:

‘Nineteenth-century America clasped ancient Egypt especially close to her bosom. “The Egyptian style,” writes the historian Blanche Linden-Ward, “captured the imagination of arbiters of American culture intent on finding new symbols representative of their nation. Many Americans in the 1830s equated their country with Egypt, another ‘first civilization’ … They nicknamed the Mississippi the ‘American Nile’ and gave the names of Memphis, Cairo, Karnak and Thebes to new towns along its banks.” Perhaps the most famous example of our forebears’ Egyptophilia, aside from the Great Seal, is the Washington Monument, a 555-foot-tall obelisk that was designed in 1836 (though not completed until 1884). Another proposed monument, serious enough to be entertained by Congress, would have entombed the father of his country pharaoh-style in a giant pyramid, which demonstrates the pitfalls of modeling a fledgling republic after a millennia-old monarchy, at least when it comes to questions of official taste.’

Although Washington didn’t get a pyramid from Congress, according to theater historian David Naylor, the flamboyant movie exhibitor Grauman gave him an even more bizarre memorial in his second downtown theatre, the Metropolitan: ‘a sphinx with the head of George Washington on a pedestal beside the lobby staircase. The quote near the base of the sphinx read, “You cannot speak to us, O George Washington, but you can speak to God. Ask him to make us good American citizens”‘.

Although Grauman’s Egyptian Theater has been restored and is currently the home of the American Cinematheque, of the 40 to 50 Egyptian theatres built in America in the 1920s, only a handful survive.

The sad thing I find is that I can no longer imagine an Egyptian revival of such magnitude ever taking place again, or at least not one that would be taken seriously and valued for the elegance and energy of its design. The media, movie-industry, and disappointingly even the way Egypt and its treasures are promoted, have all contributed to some people’s view of Egypt not just as a stereotyped land of gold and mummies, but have also added tacky, over-the-top, crude, and laughable overtones to the way it’s perceived. Sadly some of the crasser examples of Egyptomania can also be said to have contributed. Despite the general public’s fascination with Egypt, their exposure is superficial, with few people able to tell the difference between crude inaccurate Egyptian-style reproductions and the real artistry of the originals.

As the author of the aforementioned article, Bruce Handy, similarly notes:

‘Most of us have gleaned whatever knowledge we have of ancient Egypt from popular culture, whether Boris Karloff’s The Mummy, Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, Victor Buono’s King Tut on the old Batman show, Steve Martin’s novelty song “King Tut” (in which the boy king moves from Arizona to Babylonia, where he owns a “condo made of stone-a”), or Brendan Fraser’s frantic Mummy remakes. Indeed, judging from these sources, you’d be forgiven for thinking that ancient Egypt’s was the silliest civilization that ever existed’.

None of this is going to be changed anytime soon, if Egypt continues to be presented in a way that aims to appeal to the lowest common denominator with sensationalism rather than aspiring to a more informed representation. Commercialism feeds people’s misconceptions of Egyptian culture in an attempt to cash in and sadly one of the most disappointing examples of this happening is connected to what should be an opportunity to educate people.

I think the marketing for the Tutankhamun exhibit at the O2 buys too much into stereotypes, trying to sell it on gold, gold, and more gold, and raising false hopes of seeing the famous death mask, rather than helping people see that viewing more domestic objects can actually give us more insight into the life of the boy king. I’ve even heard that the gift shop features a tissue box in the form of the famous mask, where the tissues come out of the nostrils! But I shouldn’t really judge until I’ve seen it myself. I’m planning to visit it at the end of March, and when I do I’ll let you know what I think of it.

I believe that it’s possible to harness the interest in Egypt inspired by Hollywood and the media, and use it as an opportunity to introduce people to the real Egypt. Though exciting action and glittering gold can glamorize Egypt, it remains that this fascinating culture has intrigued people since ancient Greek and Roman times and will continue to in spite of the misleading publicity it gets. For those willing to actually take a close look at the objects and monuments or read about them will realize that it can be even more thrilling to pierce the veil of mystery that shrouds the *real* Egypt and to delve into the lives of the people who created this astounding civilization.

For further reading on Egyptomania, I can recommend Imhotep Today: Egyptianizing Architecture, a nice collection of essays on examples from around the world.

Grauman sign

Sign for Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. Photo by Kevin Stanchfield.

Seeing Ancient Egypt with new eyes

Although I’ve travelled to Egypt a few times now myself, it always interests me to hear people’s first impressions of the country, especially when they are less familiar with the ancient society. Lynn Barber has written a delightful article in the Guardian on ‘how she fell for Egypt’, and it gives a wonderfully fresh insight on how the country and its landscapes, people, monuments, and artwork can captivate and capture the imagination so instantly and entirely.

It’s wonderful to hear about someone else falling for the first time for something you love too and it makes me recall my first trip to Egypt. To me Egypt was a civilization that I already knew very intimately, but to finally be there, I was just as astonished as Barber, or even more so.

I still vividly remember my first visit to the museum in Cairo. When I was a child, I delighted in the Egyptian gallery of the Royal Ontario Museum, but was awestruck when I finally encountered the more extensive collections of the British Museum and the Louvre- what treasure troves of wonder! But everything I had yet seen paled in comparison when I first visited the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. While the museum conditions are not ideal and the labelling is rather sparse, the collection of artifacts is incredible and not to be missed. Despite the rather shabby setting, I gasped in awe not just at each new room I entered, of which there was an astounding, seemingly endless number brimming with antiquities, but at each object that met my eye; many of them were familiar to me as significant pieces appearing in countless books, and the rest were new and thrilling, each one a tiny time capsule revealing some insight into the ancient Egyptians. From the imposing colossal statue of Amenhotep III and his wife Mut, who preside over the great statue court at the heart of the museum, to the thousands of tiny, delightful pieces stuffed into the rooms that tourists seem to ignore entirely in their dash for King Tut’s mask–they all made me fall in love with Egypt all over again.

Hippo and cow

A delightful unintentionally funny display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo

My first sight of the great hypostyle hall at the temple of Karnak was one of the few experiences in my life that’s been literally jaw-dropping, as in actually being unable to keep my upper and lower jaws attached. Karnak is the grand temple of Egypt, the one that every king had to add to until it became positively labyrinthine, and apparently the largest ancient religious site in the world. The hypostyle hall is its crowning glory: 134 massive limestone stone columns in the form of papyrus plants, some standing up to 80 feet high, form a veritable stone forest. I am sadly unable to find the words to describe the strange humbling yet inspiring feeling I felt standing dwarfed in the midst of that massive monument. I can only say, if you’ve never been, you need to go.

On one point in Barber’s article I’d have to disagree though- she describes her visit to the Valley of the Kings and says that while the main ticket allows entrance to three tombs, ‘if you want to see more tombs, you can buy another ticket or go to the Valley of the Queens, and the Valley of the Nobles, but three is probably enough’. I can understand that seeing a myriad of tombs might be overwhelming for those new to Egypt and three tombs in the Valley of the Kings specifically might indeed be enough, but missing out the Nobles and the tombs of Deir el Medina is a mistake that many tourists seem to make- both were deserted when I visited. The tombs of the kings and the tombs of the nobles, and also of the workers who made the kings’ tombs, are very different in style indeed. The royal design is understandably quite formal and focussed on religious motifs, and personally I think that the average person would probably enjoy the tombs of the Nobles and Deir el Medina much more with their lively decoration and relate more to the scenes of daily life.

A relief in the tomb of Ramose in the Valley of the Nobles, photo by Becky Ragby

The art in those tombs is truly superb and not to be missed. Actually, it’s hardly surprising that the artists who decorated the tombs of the kings did a rather wonderful job on their own tombs too! It was wonderful to read Lynn Barber describe Egyptian art in such glowing terms: ‘I expected to find ancient Egyptian art interesting: what I didn’t expect was that I’d find it as thrilling as, say, Florence or St Petersburg’. Sadly, Egyptian art has always historically been viewed as inferior to classical art, but I’m glad it’s not just the Egyptologists who’d disagree with this.

I’m not convinced either by her claim that ‘most of the tour guides in Egypt are fully trained Egyptologists’ since sadly I’ve heard numerous guides spouting ridiculous nonsense to rapt audiences of tourists. I’ve met a number of the Egyptian summer trainees at the British Museum and they’re actually curators and antiquities inspectors not tour guides.

Egypt can have a profound effect on its visitors, however Lynn Barber’s final comments in her article were incredibly amusing to me as an Egyptologist-in-training who decided on her career at the age of 6. Unfortunately Barber’s words of wisdom come perhaps slightly too late for me: ‘Incidentally if you have children of an impressionable age, do not take them to Egypt because it will inevitably make them want to become archaeologists when they grow up and then they will spend their adult lives sorting shards in some dim county museum… Egyptology is an incredibly alluring subject, but a disastrous career, I suspect’.