Friday, February 01, 2008

Review: Tutankhamun at the O2 (again)

It wasn't my intention to write two informal reviews of the same exhibition, but having returned this afternoon from a second visit to Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of Pharaohs, which was a somewhat different experience from the previous one, I thought it worth penning a few words on the subject.

The main differences were that I drove there, it was a different time of day, an expensive day of the week for ticket purchases, and that I took a friend who has only the vaguest interest in archaeology of any sort. The friend gave me the benefit of seeing the exhibition through very different eyes.

Driving to the O2 from my home in Surrey Quays was easy and, because I was heading out of London rather than into London, the traffic was very light even at that time of day (it was chaos on the way into town, however!). Finding the O2 on the A-Z was straight forward, and finding somewhere to park was also simple (although the first carpark we were directed to initially was actually closed). You collect a ticket from the ticket barrier on the way into the carpark, and as you head on foot to the O2 you are directed to a ticket machine to pre-pay for your parking ticket before you leave. It cost 5.00ukp, which I paid on my debit card (it also accepted credit cards and cash). It was certainly an argument for taking public transport next time, but we were going on somewhere else afterwards and needed the car. After leaving the carpark, the signposting was very poor, with my friend and I squabbling mildly over which direction we should be taking in the absence of useful information.

Being a Friday, the tickets cost 20.00ukp, which is 5.00ukp more than the cost of a visit from Monday to Thursday. I booked online again, but it was too close to the date of the planned visit for the tickets to be sent to me. Instead I was instructed to pick them up at the box office. The box office is not the ticket office that you see as you walk into the O2. Instead it is located next to the Tutankhamun exhibition queue. This was causing some confusion that I hadn't observed last time, having had my tickets sent to me by mail. Once at the box office, I handed over my printed order confirmations (both web and email versions), and my tickets were handed over. Make sure that you take the card (debit or credit) with which you paid for your tickets online - it will be required as a security check, to verify that you are the person who booked the tickets.

Thanks to the anonymous comment posted in response to my previous review I found the lockers, and these were very welcome indeed. However, I never found out what the lady in front of me at the x-ray machine, who had an enormous suitcase, did with her luggage. If you are intending to take your luggage with you, I suggest you phone the O2 in advance for some advice.

This time I booked an early slot. My previous visit, booked for 1430, had been dictated by a morning visit to the dentist, but I had the freedom to select any time for today so I chose 9.30. a.m.. My guess was that this was the best way to avoid school children and coach loads of visitors who had set out in the morning from other parts of the U.K for a day trip to the museum. This turned out to be a smart move. Whether it was partly due to the additonal cost of a Friday ticket, or just the early booking time I don't know, but there was no queue to talk of, we were not held at different points before being allowed to proceed to the next part of the queue, and instead walked straight into the room where the short film was shown. The exhibition itself was infinitely less busy on this occasion, and there wasn't a school child in sight.

Due to the lack of crowds I found that showing a friend round was an embarassing experience - every time I opened my mouth to translate a row of hieroglyphs or share a bit of history, I was aware of attracting an audience. However, this was pleasantly due to the fact that on this occasion you actually could hear yourself think. I wouldn't have attempted to attempt to communicatite anything on my previous visit - not only would it have been impractical in the crowds, but it would have been a case of roaring over the surrounding melee.

Chatting with my friend afterwards it became clear that the exhibition can be, simultaneously, a pleasure and a let-down. He loved the exhibits, picking out a number of favourites - the twin statuette of Khaemwaset and Manana, the brown quartzite Amarna head, the alabaster twin-handled cup in the form of a lotus flower, the pectoral in the form of a stone scarab with the jewelled wings, and the fabulously decorated dagger with its scabbard. But the black and white photographs and video footage of the animal-headed funerary beds, the famous black and gold Anubis shrine, the chariots and many of the other larger objects, highlighted that this was a small sample and somewhat unrepresentative of the much bigger and broader range of items. It was not so much that the famous mask and other well known items were missing - it was that the bigger items of furniture were not represented. This comment is less about Tutankhamun, than about getting a first hand view of the entire range of items that might be buried in an undisturbed tomb. This did not lessen my friend's pleasure in the objects that were on display, but did leave him wishing that there had been a something more of the other types of item from the tomb. I do see his point.

The other point made by my friend is that there was not enough information available about the periods and the objects. The audio tour was probably more informative, and it is quite clear that the recording device talks visitors through some of the information boards in far more detail, but this has a downside logistically speaking. There were always immovable groups of people staring at the maps and boards and listening to Omar Sharif in their heads, and as these information boards are located just inside the doorways to each new gallery, this was a real bar to traffic flow. If the information boards were more informative, the groups would be even more of a barrier. The same goes for the labeling of individual objects - it would be great to have more information but the crowds would be worse. On the other hand, I was having to do far too much explaining, and most of my pearls of very (very) basic wisdom might well have been helpful for other visitors. For those who don't want to wear a pair of headphones for the duration of the tour (around two hours), a good compromise might have been a reasonably-priced exhibition guide sold at the box office, just as they do in the U.K. at stately homes, the zoo, or exhibtions at certain art galleries. The essential difficulty of sorting out the conflict between ensuring traffic flow and providing good quality information is one of the things that I appreciate as a real problem but, on the experience of two rather different visits, I don't think that the problem was resolved particularly well here.

By the way, the headphones cost 4.00ukp. You can book the machine at the same time as your book your ticket, or you can simply rent one at the time. If you do choose to go down the machine route, do try to remember that you are on planet Earth with the rest of us - I was again reminded of body-snatching movies where aliens take over the human host and all that remains is a mindless zombie. For the hearing-impaired there is a text version of the audio guide that is available at any of the audio sales points (according to FAQs on the website). Perhaps that text guide would be good for the rest of us too! :-)

We both had a really good time, even if the experience was very different for each of us.

If you have even a minor addiction to hieroglyphs I recommend that you get up to speed on 18th Dynasty funerary texts. Most of them are very straight forward indeed. I had been practising my hieroglyphs so I had the satisfaction of being able to read the entire texts on most of the objects, with only a few bits of vocabularly jotted down in a tiny notebook for looking up later. The most useful quick reference guide was that by Karl-Theodor Zauzich (Hieroglyphs Without Mystery), which is quite short but has some worked examples from the tomb of Tutankhamun that are in the exhibition.

I am glad to say that my friend was as taken aback by the shop as I was myself - both by the astronomical prices and by some of the sheer tackiness of some of the gifts on offer. I suppose that if adults are daft enough (or charitable enough) to pay those prices then so be it, but it saddened me that products aimed directly at children were so ruthlessly over-priced.

My favourite object this time? The black leopard statue stand. That leopard was prowling, and it was beautiful.

The exhibition is currently scheduled to be open until the end of August 2008. I daresay that I will be visiting again before it closes.

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