Mum's the word

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
Digging for Dreams. Burrell Collection, Glasgow. March 16 to September 30.

At a new exhibition on ancient Egypt, based on the collection of archaeologist Flinders Petrie, Deedee Cuddihy uncovers a recently opened tomb and some mummified remains

It's all nonsense, of course, but there may be some who blame the "Mummy's Curse" for problems during preparations for Digging for Dreams, a major exhibition on ancient Egypt that opened last week at the Burrell Collection in Glasgow.

The idea that mummies sought revenge on people who disturbed their graves has its origins in Victorian times, when travel to Egypt was all the rage and ancient burial sites were being plundered by tourists. The mythical mummy's curse was later blamed for the deaths, in allegedly mysterious circumstances, of a number of those involved in the exploration of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922.

Last October, some three-quarters of a century later, when Digging for Dreams was due to be launched in London at the Croydon Clocktower museum, petrol blockades threatened the opening, although it eventually went ahead as planned, and the exhibition attracted record audiences. Now, the foot and mouth crisis could result in restricted access to the Burrell because of its location in Pollok Park, where Glasgow's herd of prize-winning Highland cattle is kept. At the time of writing, however, the building remains open to the public.

In fact, the mummy's curse is just one of the fascinating topics which can be explored in an exhibition, aimed at both children and adults, that presents ancient Egypt and its archaeology in an imaginative and interesting way.

Created specially for the Croydon museum and the Burrell, Digging for Dreams is based on the collections of the Petrie Museum in London. Flinders Petrie, who has been called the "Victorian Indiana Jones", was one of the greatest archaeological and Egyptological pioneers and trained other famous Egyptologists, including Howard Carter who went on to discover Tutankhamun's tomb. Born in 1853, Petrie disturbed many a mummy in his day, but his life was, seemingly, unaffected by the mythical curse and he died at the age of 89.

His Victorian study has been recreated for the exhibition where photographs and documents show that Petrie and his wife, Hilda - who was 25 to his 43 when they married - lived for their work. On site, the couple often set up home in ancient tomb chambers which, according to Petrie, were very satisfactory. Writing about "A Digger's Life" in the late 1800s, he boasted: "No better lodgings are to be had anywhere for slidity and equable temperature I and there are minor advantages such as the gratis supply of ancient bones or mummy cloth in the dust and sand of your floor".

Digging for Dreams also features a simulation of a recently-opened tomb whose treasures can be explored with torches and where a video screen - artfully placed among the fallen "stones" - shows a clip from the original Boris Karloff mummy movie, complete with blood-curdling screams.

Unusually for the time, Flinders Petrie was much more interested in exploring the culture and history of ancient Egyptian people than in finding priceless art objects, and that is what the Burrell exhibition focuses on.

Using more than 125 objects from the Petrie collections, we learn, for instance, that high-ranking men were more likely than women to wear perfume, eye make-up and other cosmetics. Apparently, the art of putting on make-up implied far more than just trying to make yourself look good. It was, according to the excellent catalogue that accompanies the show, "full of meanings about status, power and religion".

Our ideas about how women looked in ancient Egypt are also turned on their head. It seems that, like Barbie dolls these days (and fashion models), the highly-refined, slim figures with elaborate wigs, make-up and skimpy dresses depicted in paintings and sculpture bear little resemblance to actual women. These images were created "by men, according to Egyptian conventions of beauty and desirability".

Digging for Dreams points out that, in an era when life expectancy was short and few lived beyond the age of 35 - a family with surviving grandparents was very rare indeed - children had to grow up more quickly than they do today in the west. Teenage pregnancy was encouraged and girls were expected to marry and begin bearing children as soon as possible.

An exhibition about ancient Egypt would not, of course, be complete without some mummified remains and there is a hand and a gratifyingly gruesome head. However, they are screened by a reproduction funeral shroud so you can choose whether to lift it aside and take a look.

Visitors can also read out an ancient Egyptian prayer for the dead and translate their names into hieroglyphs.

A teachers' preview was held on Monday, March 19 and a series of workshops for primary and secondary school pupils will take place between now and the first week of June.

For further details and information about free transport to the exhibition in a specially decorated minibus, telephone the Museum Education Service on 0141 287 2747.

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