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A hundred years on, Howard Carter’s discovery still grips the imagination.
‘’Yes, wonderful things!” Howard Carter’s reply to Lord Carnavon on that first look into Tutankhamun’s burial chamber has become as famous as the archaeologist himself. And 150 of the wonderful, beautiful, exquisite things he saw almost a hundred years ago are on display at the Saatchi Gallery in Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh.
The largest collection of Tutankhamun’s treasures ever to leave Egypt opens on Saturday 2 November and runs until 3 May 2020. We caught a preview of this fascinating exhibition which has to be the winter’s must-see, as such a display is unlikely to be seen again in this country for decades, if ever. When the exhibition closes in May, it will continue its tour of the world before going on permanent display at Cairo’s new Grand Egyptian Museum, in time for the centenary of Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb.
With its serene and authoritative gaze, Tutankhamun’s stunning golden death mask is probably Ancient Egypt’s most famous icon – but unlike other previous displays of Tutankhamun’s treasures, you won’t find it in this exhibition, as it’s now too fragile to travel.
Although that might be a disappointment to some, it’s actually something of a positive. That’s because, as the natural centrepiece of other Tutankhamun exhibitions, it dominates and overshadows any other artefacts on display, and many of them deserve to have more attention in their own right.
With only a few large objects in the exhibition to look at, you have to focus on the smaller artefacts – but they don’t disappoint. The craftsmanship on display is superb, fit for a Pharaoh, and almost all of the items are masterpieces, clearly chosen for their beauty. The state of preservation of many of the objects is really remarkable: colours are bright, wood looks fresh, the gold is sumptuous.
There are so many wonders it’s hard to pick favourites but the shabti, small figurines meant to help Tutankhamun in the afterlife, have cuteness appeal. (Tutanankhamun had over 400 of them, one for each day as well as their overseers).
Other stand-outs are the ceremonial flail and crook, the symbols of Pharaonic power. Despite being carried by every Pharoah, the only ones ever found are Tutankhamun’s and on show here.
The gold inlaid Canopic Coffinette is quite exquisite (and features in the posters for the show seen all over London).
The theme of the exhibition, in contrast to past tours, is the interpretation of the significance and meaning of the king’s burial items and it walks visitors, as if companions of the dead pharaoh, through nine galleries, through the netherworld towards the afterlife.
The organisers have done their best to create the right environment for the exhibition. There’s unobtrusive background music and each gallery is atmospherically lit. To move between galleries, however, you have to negotiate the building’s utilitarian, town hall-like corridors. You are repeatedly jolted out of the ancient Land of the Nile to the modern Land of the Thames and back again.
The overall presentation of the exhibition has a slightly commercial, rather than a museumy, feel, but the labelling is excellent and the audio guide informative. Exiting through the gift shop (of course), while the exhibition books are impressive, the other merchandise was rather unimaginative.
Timed tickets are sold in 30-minute entry slots but you spend as much time as you like enjoying the exhibition. There have though been criticisms of the ticket pricing – at peak periods adult tickets can cost £37 – but weekdays offer better value.
To admire and study the objects properly, you need to get up close up and if the exhibition is as popular as expected (in Paris attendance was over 1.4 million), you’ll be sharing the galleries with a lot of people all trying to do the same thing. Booking early weekday tickets might be the best solution; there are also some Friday evening openings with music and drinks each month.
The exhibition ends in a large room with only a large quartzite statue of Tutankhamun. After his death, the new Pharaoh did everything possible to remove every trace of his predecessor – Tutankhamun’s name has been crudely erased from the cartouche on the statue’s belt and replaced by that of the new ruler, Ay.
Why? Because the Ancient Egyptians believed that along with everything else to do with their belief in the afterlife, as long as your name lived on, so did you; when somebody says your name for the last time, you die forever. The name Tutankhamun wasn’t meant to be spoken, his tomb wasn’t meant to be found.
There’s a huge cosmic irony that a young, obscure Pharoah, who was meant to be unknown to the generations who came after him, is the most famous. And his name will forever be associated with that of Howard Carter – it was only the finding of a cup with Tutankhamun’s name on it that led Carter to look for his tomb – and in this exhibition, we too perpetuate the Pharaoh’s – and Carter’s – immortality, speaking their names to make them live.
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Tickets are sold in 30-minute entry slots.
Monday–Wednesday & Sunday: 9.00 am – last entry 5.30 pm
Thursday and Friday: 9.00 am – last entry at 8.30 pm
Saturday: 9.00 am – last entry at 7.30 pm