* Prices may differ from that shown
"At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues and gold - everywhere the glint of gold...I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, "Can you see anything?" it was all I could do to get out the words, "Yes, wonderful things." Howard Carter in his book "The Tomb of Tut.ankh.Amen".
On November 4th 1922, the excavation team working for beleaguered British archaeologist Howard Carter stumbled upon the top step of the entrance to a hidden tomb. Carter has been hunting for an undisturbed find in the Valley of the Kings for many years without success, and was rapidly coming to the end of both his time and money. Exhausted and facing having to leave Egypt empty-handed, this chance find represented his last opportunity of making a significant discovery. He excavated the remaining ten steps leading down towards the sealed door at the entrance to the tomb, finding that the upper left corner of the door has been re-plastered and re-sealed in antiquity, and that the door was stamped with the Valley guards' symbol of a jackal and nine captives rather than a royal name. This told him that the tomb has been disturbed since the original burial was made, but that there was still something of importance left inside. Making a small hole in the doorway, he peered inside as best he could by candlelight. Then, curbing his impatience to enter the tomb, Carter had the steps re-covered to protect his find, and sent a famous telegram back to his sponsor Lord Carnarvon: "At last I have made a wonderful discovery in the Valley, a magnificent tomb with seals intact. Recovered same for your arrival. Congratulations!".
Carter did not realise the full extent his discovery until later that month, when the tomb was fully opened in the presence of Lord Carnarvon; the treasures that he discovered within captured the imagination of the public and created a worldwide sensation. A wave of Egypt-mania swept across the world, and interest in the finds together with rumours of a curse on those who had entered the tomb soon ensured that Tutankhamen became the most famous of all Egyptian kings in the popular imagination. In 1972, to mark the 50th anniversary of the discovery, an exhibition showcasing many of the items discovered in Tutankhamen's tomb was shown in London and attracted 1.7million visitors, setting a new standard for blockbuster touring museum shows. A further exhibition was later negotiated to travel around US museums between 1976 and 1979. However, due to some minor damage that occurred to one of the objects when it was returned after this second tour, the Egyptian government passed a law prohibiting the future loan of the objects. It wasn't until 2004 that the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities relented and began to negotiate with National Geographic the possibility of creating another international touring exhibition ("Tutankhamen and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs"), with the proceeds going towards the creation of the Great Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The new exhibition was to be bigger and better than the earlier ones, and was to travel around the US (Chicago, Philadelphia, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Los Angeles and Atlanta) and to visit London (between November 2007 and the end of August 2008).
- The Venue
The London stage of the "Tutankhamen and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" tour is being held in a section of the O2 arena (formerly the Millennium Dome). At first I thought the choice of venue to be a bit odd (I had assumed it would be held in one of the major London museums), but it actually turned out to be surprisingly good, as a great deal of space could be devoted to the exhibition: an important consideration if you think how many visitors might be expected to want to come to it. Indeed, the considerable scale of the O2 means that the exhibition can be afforded a grand entrance taking in the full height of the arena and immediately conferring a sense of awe and expectation on the visitor as it dwarfs the shops and restaurants around it. Due to the large numbers of visitors, tickets are timed to stagger entrance into the exhibition, and it is recommended that you book in advance, especially if you want to visit at the weekend (where tickets do sell out for some time slots a week or more in advance).
While you queue for admission, you are offered an audio tour narrated by Omar Sharif - but only if you are prepared to pay another £4 (£2.50 for children) each. I baulked at paying out again after already spending a lot of money on the tickets, but Other Half decided to hire one each for us. They were the same design as those often used by English Heritage, resembling a mobile phone handset with headphones attached that the visitor can use as and when they please. When presented with a numbered symbol on the tour, you key in the displayed number to the handset and press play to hear the commentary; there were also stop, pause and volume controls. (I should note that transcripts of the tour were available for visitors with hearing impairments and there were also versions available in other languages - I noticed ones in Japanese certainly, but obviously not narrated by Omar Sharif!). Suitably kitted out, you then take an escalator up the first floor to pass through security (inevitably I was chosen for the random bag search - I must just look dodgy) before heading up a second escalator to an anteroom when you join yet another queue. This is just another means of staggering visitor flow into the exhibition. Visitors are admitted in small groups into the first room of the exhibition with a wait of several minutes between each group. When we arrived it wasn't too busy (well, it was 10am on a Sunday) so we had to wait just a couple of minutes here; anyone arriving at busier periods might find themselves waiting longer and entering the exhibition at a later time than that stated on their ticket.
- The Exhibition
The exhibition contains around 130 objects from the tomb of Tutankhamen and other Valley of the Kings internments believed to be his ancestors. It includes some of the objects seen in the 1970s exhibition, and others that have never before travelled outside of Egypt. You could be forgiven for thinking that the famous gold death mask of Tutankhamen is on show given the familiar image used on posters and promotional material, but this is not actually the case; this object is far too precious to be let out of its home museum in Cairo. The image used in the pictures is (as the fine print does state for those who have a magnifying glass to hand) that of a canopic coffinette, which is on display and just happens to be of the same design as the death mask (you can see a photo at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Tut_coffinette.jpg). This object (undoubtedly one of the highlights of the show for me) and its use in the promotional material in this way will I'm sure have raised many people's hope of seeing the most famous of Tutankhamen's grave goods - although hopefully the wealth of other objects will have compensated for this one's omission and any disappointment it may have caused.
You start your visit in a well stage-managed introductory theatre; a short film (maybe two minutes long and also narrated by Omar Sharif) introduces the exhibition in an otherwise darkened room. As the film ends, lights at the far end of the room go up to highlight a stone statue, the first object of the exhibition. We obediently trot off towards it and listen to the first excerpt on our audio players, which draws our attention to the finer points of the workmanship - in much the same way as the text panel does, to be honest. As we leave the room, behind us we can hear the next group being ushered into the introductory gallery; this way, the galleries should not get too crowded, which is good for both the security of the objects and for the visitor who wants to able to see them clearly (especially those objects with audio recordings associated with them, as they attract large clusters of visitors).
The exhibition is stretched though 11 rooms - some containing single objects, others more like traditional museum galleries - and has a clear narrative structure. You start in ancient Egypt before Tutankhamen, before moving through sections telling you about religious belief, death and the afterlife, then the contentious reign of Tutankhamen's revolutionary father Akhenaten^. Finally, you reach the Boy King gallery and can start to see objects from Tutankhamen himself over the next five rooms. The last gallery is an interesting deviation from all the wonderful objects you have been presented with thus far: the discovery of the tomb and the science of Tutankhamen's death.
Aside from the objects, the exhibition was also of interest to me to see what a well-funded museum display could be like. The answer it seems is that it includes a beefy security guard in each room, top-notch lighting to draw out the finer points of objects (trust me, both difficult and expensive to do well without damaging the object with heat or UV) and appropriate set props and music to help develop an atmosphere - this was not just your usual museum white space. Objects were never just expected to speak for themselves, either. The text was clearly written and put the objects in context, but was also understandable for a mass audience. As far as possible, objects were placed in glass case "islands" to allow visitors to move all around them and appreciate them from different angles. Modern technology (beyond the reach of most museum budgets) was used to good effect. The best example of this was with the canopic coffinette mentioned previously: fine details of the interior and exterior had been filmed close-up and were displayed on large HD TVs in the gallery so that you could see the object in fine detail. The audio tour, on the other hand, was a bit of a letdown for me. I didn't feel that it offered me much more than was available on the text panels, and caused clustering of visitors around some cases that made it harder to see objects without being jostled. I would not have been bothered had it been included in the price, but it was simply not worth the extra money, and I wouldn't recommend buying one to visitors.
- "Mummies 3-D" Film
As an extension to the exhibition, the Vue cinema in the O2 is offering a documentary film entitled "Mummies 3D", and visitors can buy a "Golden Ticket" that admits them to both the exhibition and the film (as we did, to make the most of the experience). The film lasts about 45 minutes and is a mixture of historical reconstruction (showing both Ancient Egypt and the story of how the Valley of the Kings was discovered by antiquarians), and explanation on how archaeologists and scientists can retrieve information from the mummies they find. True, it is not about (or to my recollection, even mention) Tutankhamen, but I rather enjoyed it as an extension to what I had seen in the exhibition earlier, and found it to be a nice complement to the displays. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that 3D film technology has developed a long way since I last saw one as a child - although you still have to wear the silly glasses! Visitors can see the film either before or after the exhibition (we saw it afterwards, but I don't think it would matter either way) and timings are advertised at http://tinyurl.com/3kccg5. If you have the time, I would recommend "Mummies 3D" as part of your visit to the exhibition.
- Final Thoughts and Conclusions
As you leave the exhibition, you are inevitably channelled through the exhibition shop, and a surprisingly large and well-stocked one at that - especially in the book department. Most of the goods are of the good quality variety aimed at (well off) adult visitors, although there are some more affordable items (such as a souvenir mug for £6) and a few bits and pieces that will appeal to children (such as pencil tins and key rings). It was worth having a browse around, though we were limited by what we could get home on the train (so no big hardback books for us). In terms of visitor facilities, there were plenty of staff and seating available throughout my time in the exhibition, but I don't recall seeing any toilets anywhere. There are public toilets in the O2 close by, but that may be worth remembering if you are going to spend anything between 1 and 2 hours in the exhibition, and you are not allowed re-admittance once you have left.
So what are my final thoughts about "Tutankhamen and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs"? Well, it was hard not to be impressed by the array of objects on display and how well they had survived (especially when you compare them to British finds of a similar age - we were still stuck in the Bronze Age then!). Then there is always that intangible wonder that you are seeing something that was held by, touched by or used by such a famous historical figure as Tutankhamen. The exhibition was well designed, and I spent an enjoyable couple of hours going around it; it was the main reason that we came to London for the weekend, and I think the trip was justified on this account. On the downside, I did feel a little gouged in the financial department; the fact that it cost a third more for weekend tickets, the charge for the audio tours, the charge for buying my tickets online to guarantee I could get in on the day I wanted to. I appreciate it all goes to a good cause and that insurance, security and transport are all big costs associated with this exhibition, but this day out financially exhausted me, so I am removing one star from my rating.
- Visitor Information
Exhibition only: Weekday prices
Adult - £15
Concession (Seniors, disabled, unemployed with ID) - £12.50
Child (5-15) - £7.50
Family (2 adult + 2 children) - £10
£1.75 booking fee per order when bought online
Exhibition only: Weekend prices
Adult - £20
Concession (Seniors, disabled, unemployed with ID) - £16
Child (5-15) - £10
Family (2 adult + 2 children) - £13.25
£1.75 booking fee per order when bought online
Golden Ticket: Weekday prices
Adults - £20.50
Concessions (Seniors, disabled, unemployed with ID) - £18.00
Children (ages 5-15) - £13.00
Family Tickets - £62.00
£1.75 booking fee per order when bought online
Golden Ticket: Weekend prices
Adults - £25.50
Concessions (Seniors, disabled, unemployed with ID) - £21.50
Children (ages 5-15) - £15.50
Family Tickets - £75.00
£1.75 booking fee per order when bought online
Opening Times: First entry 10am daily / Last entry 17.30 weekdays and 20.00 weekends
The "Mummies 3D" film costs £4 per person if bought individually.
^ You have probably heard the name Akhenaten before as he has featured on quite a few documentaries on various channels over recent years. He was the Pharaoh who rejected the traditional pantheon of Egyptian gods in favour of monotheism, worshipping only the Aten (Sun God). He may even have been the pioneer for the faith that became Judaism (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akhenaten#Moses_and_Akhenaten).
Exhibition of Egyptian artifacts and treasures brought to life at the O2 in London.