Monday, 28 July 2014

Tutmania at the Ashmolean

I was very pleased to be able to pay a quick visit this weekend to the new 'Discovering Tutankhamun' exhibition at Oxford's Ashmolean museum, especially since (swanky showoff alert) I'd been invited to the preview event but not been able to go.

The really nice thing about the exhibition is that the focus, as the title suggests, is on the discovery, recording and analysis of the tomb rather than the bling that was recovered.  Admittedly this is slightly risky considering that the average tourist will have a very specific set of expectations when hearing the name 'Tutankhamun' - but this reaction is exactly what the exhibition plays upon so well.  Just how did this discovery lead to the creation of a worldwide phenomenon and a flood of interest in everything Egypt?  Why does the name have such international recognition ahead of Pharaohs such as Rameses II or Thutmose III?

The early rooms of the exhibition focus on Carter and his colleagues, and its nice to see that characters such as the photographer Harry Burton get as much attention as the more famous Carter.  I was particularly pleased as Burton is a native of Stamford, in Lincolnshire.  The photographs and drawings on show beautifully illustrate that posterity hasn't given the team anywhere near enough credit for their attempts to carefully and scientifically record their findings.  In particular, Carter's drawings show his skill as an artist and draughtsman, and the guache paintings of artefacts by Winifred Brunton are genuinely stunning artworks in their own right.

The exhibition moves on to examine the public reaction to the discovery and the emergence of 'Tutmania', through a series of displays focussing on music, fashion and music influenced, and attempting to cash in on, the find of the century.  Its an interesting subject, though perhaps a little too much of the exhibition space was taken up with this material for my taste.

One thing I did find very interesting was the display with letters received by Carter after the discovery.  Some were simply congratulatory, others seeking to buy the artefacts.  Sadly, even today some people seem unable to appreciate history unless they personally own a piece of it, as this letter from an Australian to Carter demonstrates:

"Please could you send me a souvenir from the tomb of King Tutankhamun.  I am intensely interested in history and would like very much like to see and handle a relic of ancient times.  I am enclosing a postal order to cover costs."

I sincerely hope the request was never acted on!

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