Tutankhamun: Exhibition

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The world’s most successful touring exhibition, Tutankhamun and the golden age of the Pharaohs, has already wowed millions Stateside. This autumn, the blockbuster show rolled into London. It will open until August 30th 2008 after which time it will move on again. But there have been rumbles that the exhibition is more ‘tat’ than ‘tut’, that visitors are disappointed, and that it simply does not compare to the original 1970s exhibition. Is this so? Philip Taverner, who as Marketing Director of Times Newspapers, helped to set up the original British Museum exhibition, offers us his unique perspective on the 02 show, and thereafter remembers the excitement of the first exhibition.

Treasures discovered in the tomb of the young Pharaoh Tutankhamun and in the tombs of his relatives are currently on show at the unlikely setting of London’s O2 Centre – the former Millennium Dome. This is a commercial ‘blockbuster’ exhibition; the first to be staged in a 6,500 square metre exhibition area created in a tiny corner under the O2’s vast roof and christened the O2 bubble. Four million saw it at four venues across the United States, while there were over 300,000 advance bookings for the London leg.

Back in the 1970s, the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition attracted nearly 1.7 million visits, and so tends to be regarded as the very first blockbuster exhibition of an archaeological or cultural nature. The new exhibition is however even larger than the original. It now contains some 130 exhibits; of these 50 are those of the boy king. It is also split into two parts, physically and thematically. An upper floor focuses on Tutankhamun’s noble ancestors and their way of life. It comprises galleries devoted to daily life, death, burial and the after life. No item is less than 3000 years old. These galleries are instructive and the presentation with fine background photographs and good captioning is excellent. One useful section explains the Ancient Egyptians’ move from traditional beliefs in a pantheon of gods, a belief held for over a thousand years, to the then-revolutionary belief in a single god introduced by King Akhenaten (c.1353 BC-1336 BC), but subsequently overturned by his (probable) son Tutankhamun (c.1341 BC – 1323 BC).

It is in the lower level galleries, dedicated to the discovery of the tomb and the artefacts buried with Tutankhamun that doubts creep in. For me there was a feeling of anti-climax. Of course there are wonderful exhibits, about a fifth of which were in the earlier exhibition. Thus there is the stopper for a royal canopic chest carved from a single block of alabaster. The chest itself had four cylindrical hollows within which the mummified organs of the king were stored. Tutankhamun’s pectoral collar is also outstanding: it is made of solid gold with cloissone work in lapis lazuli. Similarly beautiful is the tiny gold coffinette inlaid with glass and semi-precious stones. The latter was used to hold one of the king’s mummified internal organs (in this case, the liver) and is displayed alone – in a showcase spotlit against a black background. This seems to be intended as the star of the show and is used in much of the supporting advertising. However, some visitors have commented on their disappointment in it – not because it lacks beauty – but because the adverts led them to believe that they would see the great golden death mask of Tutankhamun, not a 10cm high statuette. Moreover, its impact was challenged by the fact that it – and the other Tutankhamun exhibits – has to be viewed accompanied by intrusive ethereal music. On the positive side, the spacious lay-out means that, generally, everyone can see the objects with ease – even when there is a crowd.

When we visited, we went as part of a large press preview group and were immediately ushered into the ‘Pharaoh’s Palace’, an area that doubles as a lounge bar and reception area for private group visits. There we had to listen to a series of speeches by the organisers and from Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s leading archaeologist. Much seemed to be said about the money they hoped to raise, little was said about Tutankhamun or the exhibition itself.

Following the shock of this experience, I was left with the feeling that this new exhibition – in particular its final galleries – lack the mystery, the passion and the thrill of discovery which marked the British Museum Exhibition. In the British Museum, there was an almost reverential presentation of individual exhibits and the excitement of coming eventually to the staggering mask of solid gold, beaten and burnished, which had once been placed over the head and shoulders of Tutankmamun’s mummy. This is now considered to be too fragile to travel but its absence is a sad loss.

Treasures of Tutankhamun 1972 remembered

I have strong memories of this first exhibition for I was closely involved with it. In the early 1970s, I was the Marketing Director of Times Newspapers who were partners with the British Museum in sponsoring the event.

As I left the O2 bubble, passing an ice rink blaring out pop tunes, I recalled how Denis Hamilton, then Chairman of Times Newspapers, and I were among the last to leave a magnificent evening reception at the British Museum on 29th March 1972. It had been held to mark the official opening of the Treasures of Tutankhamun Exhibition by the Queen earlier that day. As we walked under the portico at the front of the Museum, Denis exclaimed ‘what are all those people doing?’. There were hundreds of people queuing outside in Gt Russell Street, a queue that grew throughout the night until it virtually surrounded the Museum. Thereafter until the exhibition closed nine months later on the 30th December there was almost always a queue; indeed when the last visitor was admitted on the final day, he said that the queue still stretched back as far as he could see. Hundreds were still waiting despite being told that there was no chance of admission! Looking back to that first evening it is surprising that neither Denis Hamilton nor I had any suspicion in advance that it would be such a success.

It had all started on a hot sunny August afternoon in 1971. I was summoned to the boardroom of the Times where, to my surprise, I was told that there would be a meeting with the Ambassador of the Arab Republic of Egypt and Dr I.E.S. Edwards, Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum. The subject to be discussed had not been revealed in advance but was immediately made clear when we were informed that the Egyptian Government thought that the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery and opening of the tomb of the young Pharaoh Tutankhamun by Howard Carter in 1922 should be marked by a grand exhibition in 1972. They understood that the British Museum were willing to accommodate this and were now seeking financial help in setting it up from the Times (now part of the Times Newspapers group) who had helped to sponsor Carter’s original work. If such help was forthcoming, they would agree to loan 50 of the finest treasures removed from the tomb and representative of the huge collection then filling the galleries in the Cairo Museum. I had scarcely time to draw breath before the project was agreed and I was told to get on with the administrative work, the very first time I had ‘organised’ an exhibition.

Much later it became clear that the proposal presented to us was the result of much preliminary work by Denis (later Sir Denis) Hamilton and Dr Edwards. Hamilton had over the years built up a close rapport first with President Nasser and then his successor President Sadat. This enabled him to circumvent officialdom. Dr Edwards was acknowledged as a great expert on Egyptian antiquities. He had the expertise necessary to match Hamilton’s ‘political’ intervention. The subject of a possible exhibition was apparently first raised in Cairo in 1962. Many political and practical issues had to be surmounted in the years that followed. It helped that Hamilton was appointed a Trustee of the British Museum in, I think, 1969 by which time the British Government had become interested in the proposal. Also, in the years up to 1971, Dr Edwards was working closely with Dr Okasha, then Minister of Culture in Egypt with whom he had built up a warm friendship.

Following the August meeting I set to work. I was appointed chairman of the main committee organising the exhibition in which capacity I reported to Lord Trevellyan, chairman of Trustees at the British Museum, and to Denis Hamilton. I was also chair of the many sub committees co-ordinating work on security, transport, construction, publicity, merchandise and publications. This arrangement continued despite the fact that early in 1972, before the exhibition opened, I had become Chief Executive of Thompson Data Ltd., another subsidiary of the Thompson Organisation who also owned Times Newspapers. The key to the success of the exhibition was clearly going to be the design of the galleries.

The British Museum proposed Margaret Hall their Exhibitions Officer. Margaret was very talented and her proposal, subsequently implemented, was that visitors should enter the temporary galleries up a ramp and then descend ‘slowly into the tomb’. This proved a great success. Arguably, her overall work for the exhibition helped to revolutionize design treatment not only in subsequent major exhibitions but, to an extent, in museums and galleries throughout Britain and further afield. As you descended into the tomb you came across treasure after treasure brilliantly staged until the supreme moment when you were faced with the staggering mask of solid gold, beaten and burnished, which had once been placed over the head and shoulders of Tutankhamun’s mummy.

The exhibition design was also severely practical. Security was a major concern but in those days modern technology such as CCTV was not available. So, down one side of the temporary galleries there was a false wall incorporating ‘one way’ glass not noticeable as far as visitors were concerned. Behind this warders watched the showcases at all times when the exhibition was open. At night, when the exhibition had closed, there was an opportunity for exhibition personnel to work with Museum warders and other staff to make sure that the galleries were clear and secure. On occasions one would seem to be totally alone with those marvellous treasures.

Members of all the sub-committees were involved in intensive work from an early stage none more so than those involved with publications and merchandise. Eventually a catalogue, a wall-chart, posters, cards, slides and some beautiful reproductions of Tutankhamun’s jewellery were produced. These pieces were remarkably like the actual objects. Reproduced from colour transparencies they were gold-plated and enamelled to look like cornelian, lapis lazuli and jade inlays. They sold well as did the exhibition catalogue written by Dr Edwards which became a best seller. It was reported that some 400,000 were sold at 75p each. Together, it was said they raised more than the total gate money from the five test matches with Australia that took place in 1972.

There were nearly 1.7 million visitors to the 1972 exhibition paying an adult admission price of 50p. This first archaeological blockbuster was a financial success enabling Times Newspapers to recoup the heavy setting-up and running expenses and still making it possible to donate nearly £700,000 (the balance of the proceeds – a huge sum at 1972 prices) to UNESCO who put this money towards the preservation of the Philae temples near the Aswan dam.

Such, then, are my happy memories of an exciting time. Will the new exhibition bring in the million or more visitors the organisers are expecting? Perhaps. The discovery and subsequent opening of the tomb of the young Pharaoh has never ceased to fascinate people all over the Western World. The circumstances that led to the staging of the 1972 exhibition are so very different and are now out of line with modern expectations. Visitors may well be looking for something altogether bigger in scale however commercial and profit orientated. They will probably find what they seek at the somewhat bleak destination which is O2 and its ‘bubble’.

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 27. Click here to subscribe

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