Sunday, 5 October 2014

Discovering Tutankhamun at the Ashmolean Museum

Discovering Tutankhamun is the latest exhibition at Oxford University's Ashmolean Museum. I went a couple of weeks ago and can't recommend it enough. The show has three main sections, two of which are really quite left-field.

The first room is a blow-by-blow account of the discovery of the tomb. It focuses more on the sequence of events and the techniques and processes Carter used to excavate the site. The dig was one of the most carefully run operations of the time, eschewing the dynamite and crowbars that had (terrifyingly) typified archaeology up until the 20th century. Genius photographer Harry Burton took meticulous photographs on his plate camera recording the minute position of every object in situ. The detail that the team went into was quite incredible and the Oxford curators have done a great job of bringing this home. In addition, there is an enormous wall-mounted enlargement of an isometric drawing of the tomb complex, which is a dungeon-crawler's dream.

The second room was the real draw for me. It documents the impact the discoveries had on popular culture and the resulting wave of of Egyptian-ophilia which permeated Western creative industries in particular. There are beautiful clothes and accessories, board games, trashy romance novels, postcards and pieces of furniture from the 1920s, all unashamedly borrowing from the style and culture of the ancient Nile delta. Some space is devoted to the 1970s resurgence when the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition toured the world. For me one of the most amazing pieces was the poster from the British Museum's hosting of the tour. The design and typography is amazing and, alas, the Ashmolean's efforts pale into insignificance.

The final room is devoted to King Tut's life and the complex world in which he found himself. Modern research shows that the tragic image of the beautiful boy-king is probably rather far from the truth. This section includes enormous, super-detailed prints the Factum Foundation's scanning project which documented the interior of the tomb complex in crazy 3D detail. I wonder how long it will be before this data enables a high-rez Doom-style walkthroughs available to all via the internets? 

The very fact that this show can pull crowds from across the country and the artifacts still inspire us today is testament to the sheer genius and skill of the ancient artists. Their astonishing work still continues to thrill and inspire us thousands of years after their deaths. While it is the name "Tutankhamun" that we remember, it is really the haunting but beautiful death mask that we think of - surely one of the most exquisite pieces of craftsmanship the world has ever seen. What creative could ask for legacy better than this?

1 comment:

  1. As I was a young lad in the '70's, I remember the sudden pop fascination with King Tut when the exhibit toured the world. Thanks for bringing back some memories and, better yet, sending me to the Factum Foundation's website. They're doing some amazing things with respect to color matching and replicating the wall textures of the tomb in exacting detail.