Thursday, January 24, 2008

Review: Tutankhamun at the O2 Bubble

I went to the Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of Pharaohs exhibition yesterday. The following is a very informal review based on my first impressions.

I was in two minds about whether or not to go to this exhibition, because I have seen the Tutankhamun exhibit at the Cairo Museum on a number of occasions, the reviews for the Golden Age had been so mixed, I am not an enthusiast of blockbuster exhibitions, and I detest crowds. There was also the threat of fake columns. But in the end I decided that an early appointment with the dentist for final work on a troublesome tooth would leave me somewhat useless for the rest of the day so it seemed like a really good idea to book a ticket for that afternoon and give Tutankhamun a whirl. It is, after all, less than half an hour away from me on public transport.

I am mortified to say that I managed to become completely lost in the bus/tube station at North Greenwich. There are signs pointing you to buses, the tube, taxis, public toilets and just about everything else, but there are no signs pointing you to the O2. After a bit of a wander I saw and headed towards an ant-like trail of people, and found that you should head to the middle of the bus station and follow the covered walkway from the station to the Bubble.

When you arrive at the O2 Bubble you will be asked to put your bags through a scanner and yourself through a scanning frame - and you will be asked to repeat this procedure on the way into the exhibition. No cameras are allowed inside, and mobile phones must be switched off.

I am so glad that I went. That list of predjudices that I took along with me vanished within five minutes of entering the first gallery.

The Bubble (formerly known as the Dome) is quite famous in the U.K., and particularly in London, as being one of the most expensive white elephants of the last few decades. It is an ugly monster of a thing, a vast dome suspended on yellow spikes which protrude through the white curved ceiling. I've driven past it many times but never had a reason to brave the interior. On the inside it is far larger than I had imagined - full of shops, bars, restaurants, an auditorium and, on this occasion, an ice rink. It is very hollow and has all the personality of a shopping mall on a bad day. I didn't see any signs of cloakrooms where visitors could leave bags and coats, but I am willing to be corrected. A walk from the entrance to the Tutankhamun queue takes three or four minutes. The signposting is very poor, but a security official at the first bag scanner was very helpful with directions.

My ticket was for half past two, and I had arrived early so I went to investigate the shop (keep walking past the queue for Tutankhamun and you will find it on your left). I was permitted to join the queue at 1415. The queue is managed by allowing portions of it to move through to a series of holding areas - after a while you get the feeling that you are never going to arrive at the exhibition itself. At various points in the queue you can pick up a recorder and headphones which provides an audio guide to the exhibition. In the event, it took 25 minutes from joining the queue to entering a dark room dominated by three screens where we were asked to spread out to watch a 90 second introductory film narrated by Omar Sharif.

The film made quite good use of its one and a half minutes of our attention, putting Tutankhamun into the broader political context of the Amarna period. If you were attending the exhibition knowing nothing about the period then this would certainly have been useful. There were one or two grumbles in the audience that there was nowhere to sit, but we were shortly shown through to another dark room in which the first exhibit was shown, in solitary splendour. I never did see this statue - the assembled group poured from the tv room and gathered around the statue like bees on a honey pot. I simply walked past it into the first gallery, intending to go back a few minutes later. Sadly, I forgot and it is the only exhibit that I missed.

The galleries were all very busy. My first impression was of cabinets surrounded by vast gaggles of people. None of the exhibits were immediately visible due to the volume of people. But it is okay - with patience, and by observing which cabinets are least busy and zig-zagging between them, it is possible to experience each object without a long wait.

One of the hindrances in flow is the headphone/recorder phenomenon. People become zombies, guided by the voice in their heads (Omar Sharif again), standing stock still to stare at each display, then moving obediently and blindly to the next numbered item, trampling the unwary underfoot.

There were large numbers of school children there, which I suppose was inevitable. That I didn't strangle two of them is a miracle, but most of them were remarkably well behaved, and groups of school children are a hazard of all museums.

Once you've processed the idea that this is not going to be an opportunity for a bit of quiet and intimate interaction with the exhibits, there's nothing here but good. Reviewers have objected to the elevator-type music, but the music was almost inaudible to me and was not at all offensive. Another objection has been that some of the "themed" designs were irritating and unnecessary - these include a room of sand-coloured columns and a blacked out room holding the golden coffin which had images from the book of the dead projected onto the black walls of the gallery. I found these gimmicks mildly peculiar, but inoffensive. I wasn't too fond of the blacked out walls in the coffin room, but this was a very mild annoyance, and some people seemed to like the effect, which did highlight the golden coffin beautifully.

The information boards lacked detail, but all were fairly informative and people were actually stopping to read them. The lighting was in most cases excellent. The artefacts themselves were nerve-tingling.

In the U.S. there was some disappointment that the Tutankhamun mask was not present, and that the exhibit was not exclusively from the tomb of the king. Leaving the subject of the mask on one side because I think that by the time it reached the U.K. its absence was well known, I thought that the exhibition benefited greatly from including the artefacts from other tombs. Tutankhamun did not exist in a void, and the earlier galleries, showing artefacts from the period of his grandparents and parents, were stunningly beautiful and helped to put the boy king's reign into its proper context. Family trees were shown to show how the artefacts related to the king's background.

I was really impressed at both the quantity and the quality of the artefacts on display. Every time I turned around someone was saying "beautiful", "fabulous", "unbelievable". A huge variety of ages and backgrounds appeared to be there, and they all seemed to be bowled over. Those who hadn't been transformed into robots by the earphones were looking at individual objects and discussing them, drawing each other's attention to interesting features, and generally sharing a very memorable experience.

I would not know where to begin to describe the objects that are on display. The variety of object types and materials used is excellent.

I very much liked the way in which a vast range of craft skills were shown. Alabaster, wood, gold, gemstones, quartzite, granite, even a head carved in obsidian are all examples, and they are formed, often in combination, into delicious works of art that touch your heart and engage your brain.

Some were large (statues and the golden coffin of Thuya), and others were small but exquisite. Some are starkly simple in their design and others are immensely complicated. Some have minimal colours and are glorious, others are a remarkable kaleidoscope of brightness, and are eye-numbingly good.

Some artefacts were obvious crowd pleasers, like the the golden mummy of Tuya and the Tutankhamun coffinette, but it was great to see the responses to less obvious items like the miniature two-sided game board with its draw for the pieces, the death mask of a foetus found near the tomb of Tutankhamun, the silver trumpet with its wooden insert, and the miniature statue of Khaemwaset and Manana. The Amarna heads in Gallery 2, starkly simple and unadorned, attracted considerable interest due to the distinctive design and the extended skull shape. I always play the "if I could take home only one object" game. It was an impossible game. In the final analysis, I'd have to jump with the four miniature vases inscribed to Yuya (last image on the page), each topped with a lid carved in the form of an animal - they have been such favourites ever since I saw them for the first time over ten years ago in Cairo.

Many of the objects had cabinets to themselves, and labels were usually shown on three sides of the cabinets. This was of enormous help given the sheer volume of people. One could also examine the objects from many different angles. This helped people to move between the items and to keep traffic flowing.

I suppose that some would argue that none of the items in the exhibition are the most famous examples on display in the Cairo Museum, but that really did not spoil it for me, and I don't think that it is because I have already seen them in Cairo. This collection is super. It stands up as a fabulous statement of Egyptian artistic genius in its own right. In some ways, having fewer items focuses the mind far more successfully than the sheer volume that is presented to one in Cairo (although there are still a staggering number of them on display in this exhibition). And not one of the objects is anything other than first rate. If you have seen the objects in Cairo don't be put off - this is a different way of looking at the same items, and it is a fabulous reminder of the Cairo experience.

If you haven't been, I do most sincerely recommend it. It will be busy, and you will need to dodge around people in each of the 11 galleries to get the most out of the exhibits, and if you hate fake columns you will need to turn a blind eye once or twice - but it is worth every moment. Every object is a very special thing. Don't let the critics put you off.

I suppose that my biggest whinge was that there were no museum reference numbers on the labels for those of us who wanted to look up items up at a later date. This would not have mattered if there had been a simple catalogue for sale simply listing items by room with a short description, location and location catalogue number. I would have found this very useful, and it would have been a useful alternative for those of us who did not want to spend 35.00ukp on the glossy picture book which is the official exhibition volume. In the end, I have the Thames and Hudson "The Cairo Museum Masterpieces of Egyptian Art" (edited by Francis Tiradritti) and was able to find all the artefacts that were of particular interest to me in that.

I'm going back to visit it again, having updated myself on my hieroglyphs by then. I was reading quite well, but not well enough. It was very nice, incidentally, that one of the information posters showed how the cartouche of the king's nomen id broken down - the famous cartouche-shaped box is there, and people were very much enjoying their new found ability to break the name down into something that they could see and understand. In one of the final galleries some of the most common symbols were shown and explained on the walls (ankh, was sceptre, djed pillar etc) - this was attracting a lot of attention and I am only sad that they weren't shown early on, so that people could have enjoyed identifying them on the objects throughout the exhibition.

On the way out of the exhibition there is a very nice video screened on a wall of the original footage of the discovery - well worth seeing. There is some super footage of some very iconic pieces being carried out of the tomb. Today we see them in museums - in the video we see them actually being manhandled. The still photographs in this room are also good. There is one that really made me grin from ear to ear - a neighbouring tomb which was barely largely enough to contain its important occupants who were all sitting around tables laid with linen cloths, silver cutlery and dishes of food. It was another time and place - it couldn't happen today.

This is followed by a gallery showing results of the x-rays and scans which have been carried out on the mummy of Tutankhamun, and which explores how Tutankhamun died.

I would have loved to have taken photographs, but I am glad that photography was not permitted - it would have been chaos in there if people had been trying to jockey for position for just the right camera angle.

The shop, into which the exhibition eventually deposits you, is a real experience in its own right. A mother and her little girl were standing next to me at one point, discussing the child's purchasing options. Her mother had given her five UK pounds to spend, and they were picking up items and reading off the prices - a pack of four 1-inch-square notebooks were 9.00ukp, a pen with a Bastet head was 8.95, and on it went with none of them finding anything within the set budget whilst I was standing there. I bought 15 postcards for sending out to family and friends, handed over 10.00 - and had to fish out an extra 1.50. My postcards (starting at 50p, I later found out) cost me nearly as much as my entrance ticket! The souvenir guide, which was worth about 5.00 (in my opinion) was 12.00, and the official catalogue (hardback) was 35.00. The official DVD was 25.00. And I have rarely seen so much tackiness in one place! The Tutankhamun tissue dispenser still stands out as an all time classic. The good quality reproduction jewelry, which was displayed in locked cabinets, appeared to start at around 480.00, but one example cost over 2000.00. Sorry to harp on about it, but I was truly taken aback by the prices, even if it is supposed to go towards supporting Egyptian heritage. Nobody was buying much whilst I was there, but perhaps we were a particularly impecunious bunch (or had more common sense). The books and DVDs are much less expensive on Amazon (even the official stuff).

It is a privilege to have the exhibition here, and it almost reconciles me to the existence of the O2 Bubble. Almost. But it looks nothing like a bubble.

Thanks very much to Jon Bodsworth and his excellent Egypt Archive site for the last three images, which he took when the objects were still in the Cairo Museum, and photography was still permitted.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I visited the Exhibition in Dec 07, without the knowledge you had of the same pieces in Cairo. I agree with everything you've does seem to take an age to actually get in and it is crowded, but can be navigated with only a short wait at each case. Don't hire the headset. It's expensive, I don't think you will learn anything extra, and frankly you'll find it interferes with your enjoyment. There are odd bits where the faux columns are in evidence, but not as OTT as I was expecting. However, the exhibits themselves are truly worth the visit, with, as you say, items from everyday life through to incredible opulence. The information cards are brief, but pointed out sufficient details on the objects. It isn't giving museum standard info but perhaps this isn't the place to expect it, and by keeping it short, the crowd moves on. I truly enjoyed every moment of my 2 and a bit hours. Don't pass it by but don't leave booking your tickets until the day you want to go. You'll also need to bite the bullet on the booking and admin fee. There doesn't seem to be any way of avoiding paying both on every ticket you buy, even if the tickets are coming in the same envelope to one address! It is only a shame they vastly overcharged most of the items in the shop. I didn't see many sales being made, except the odd postcard. If the official book were nearer £20 there might have been some takers. I did manage to pick up a book on the The Complete Tutankhamen for £10 which kept me engrossed for several weeks after my visit, however it was a publication first released in the 1990s. Incidentally, after you've cleared the first scan area, before you join the queue, on the left hand side, you will find lockers where you can leave your coat/bags etc. Well worth the £1 to move around unhindered.