Review - Exhibition - Gold diggers in another light

24th December 2010 at 00:00

Tutankhamun: His Tomb and His Treasures

Museum of Museums, Manchester

To: February 27

Admission: Adults #163;14, children #163;7, special rates for school groups

It was Howard Carter's final throw of the dice. After years of digging, he had just one square left to excavate on the plan he had mapped out so meticulously. At the same time, his patron Lord Carnarvon was threatening to pull the plug, but Carter persuaded him to fund one last season at the site. Almost by chance, Carter stumbled upon what he believed was the hitherto undiscovered tomb of an obscure king.

Carter chiselled a hole in the door of the tomb and thrust his candle inside. Carnarvon, standing behind him, asked what he could see. As the light from his candle glanced around the room, Carter saw enough to utter the awestruck words: "I see wonderful things."

Now, for the first time, an exhibition at Manchester's Trafford Centre aims to recreate the sight that greeted Carter as he became the first man in more than 3,000 years to gaze inside the tomb of Tutankhamun.

These are reproductions rather than real artefacts - the bulk of those are on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The replicas have been made especially for the exhibition - one of three identical displays touring the world, with Dublin its next stop - and are so accurate and painstakingly crafted that they are almost impossible to tell from the originals. But what marks this exhibition out as different is that, thanks to the detailed plans Carter made at the time, they are arranged just as they were when he opened the tomb in November 1922.

So the antechamber, the first room seen by Carter and the only one of the three main rooms disturbed in antiquity, resembles a garage, albeit one of an extraordinarily wealthy individual, in need of a spring clean. Broken chariots are piled on top of each other in one corner, while boxes are stacked on and underneath the three golden beds that would accompany the king into the afterlife.

In among the golden hoard are more mundane objects: sacks of food and a pile of walking sticks, a hint that Tutankhamun had difficulty walking, perhaps the result of a genetic deformity, perhaps following a riding accident.

From the antechamber, Carter broke into the tomb, where he found a golden box that almost filled the room. Here the curators have provided a video reconstruction; its step-by-step approach shows how Carter had to open four boxes, a stone sarcophagus and three golden coffins, the last made of solid gold, before he arrived at the pharaoh's mummified remains, complete with the iconic golden mask.

Copies of each of these layers of the archaeological "onion" are on display separately here, while a further room recreates the contents of the treasury, including the shrine containing the jars that held the pharaoh's vital organs. Those were extracted during mummification and preserved for use in the hereafter.

Altogether, more than 1,000 artefacts, displaying a breathtaking attention to detail, have been copied for the exhibition. For all this, the drawback is that they are not the real things: they may be virtually impossible to tell apart, but they lack the mystique and allure of objects that were crafted 3,000 years ago.

But this exhibition does what the Cairo museum does not, which is to put them in context and in relation to each other. The visitor to Cairo may be seeing the real things, but does not know that the chariots were lying twisted on top of each other, or that the throne was under one of the beds. In among the glittering prizes, the Cairo visitor would also have to work hard to find the miniature coffins containing the bodies of the king's two children - one stillborn and one who died at birth - and a lock of hair believed to belong to Tutankhamun's grandmother, Queen Tiye, perhaps a keepsake he wanted to ensure remained with him for eternity.

The Manchester version has another advantage over Cairo's, in that it is possible to look at each object in detail, rather than having to jostle for a glimpse between the bobbing heads of hordes of tourists. But the relative peace in which it is possible to view these not-quite-relics points to another drawback: by locating the exhibition in an out-of-town shopping centre, the curators have made it less accessible than it could have been.

Nevertheless, some 15,000 students saw the display in its first month, despite the disruption caused by snow. The exhibition is well set up for schools: there is a young person's version of the audio guide and there are teachers' notes and a range of accompanying worksheets.

As well as giving pupils an insight into the Egyptian view of death, the exhibition also throws up an interesting debate over the difference between a genuine artefact and a replica. Is it enough to know what it looked like, or is there something you can get from the original that even an identical copy cannot provide? Even if there is nothing like the real thing, few teachers will be able to take their class to Cairo, so the Trafford Centre is a good place to start.


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