Exhibition Reviews: Ancient Egypt Special

Death on the Nile at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

For anyone who doesn’t know, the Fitzwilliam is  Cambridge’s main museum – the British Museum, National Gallery and V&A all squished together; Pre-Raphaelite Art, suits of armour and a massive ceramic owl – it’s all here!

Being near where I live I thought “Egyptians, Agatha Christie reference, sounds good” so promptly went along. Aged 9 I had a great pyramids of Giza sized small obsession with them, although studying them at A Level to death and the afterlife means I’m perhaps unjustly not so much of an Egyptophile anymore.

The exhibition itself focuses on the historical changes in burial practice – from simple inhumations in the sand to Greco-Roman portrait masks nearly 3,000 years later. Ancient Egyptian burial practice isn’t just mummies in bandages. Visually many of the coffins are stunning; rich in colour, covered in unusual gods with green skin or animal heads. You also began to see the business side of the sarcophagus industry; many being bought-to-order with names merely squished in a gap, coffins reused from old fragments and some of the paint-jobs remarkably scruffy. The coffins weren’t all stereotypical intricate multi-sarcophagus gold leaf jobs.

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Greco-Roman style mummy case holding flowers and papyrus

 

The exhibition is however highly technical with lots of focus on scientific analysis of pigments, joinery techniques and x-ray scans of coffins showing said joinery. There is even a conservation lab in the exhibition, the conservator themselves was apparently going to be back later according to a notice. Really I think they were hiding from the Saturday afternoon tourist mob, tired of being stared at like an animal in a zoo!

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Footcase for a mummy. Not quite sure about the drawing of the feet.

“Death on the Nile” is highly informative and to anyone who doesn’t know much about the Ancient Egyptians or wants something interesting to do in Cambridge I would highly recommend this exhibition. However, personally I just didn’t enjoy this exhibition – it was just too technical; it felt like walking through the physical version of the kind of essays I have to read for university. The Ancient Egyptians pulled the deceased’s brains out through their noses, stuffed their organs in animal headed jars and were buried with a mini army to serve them in the afterlife (shabti dolls) and yet the focus was on how the coffin corners were fixed together and what rocks made what pigment. As a visitor I wanted to know understand the reason behind the seemingly zany beliefs and rituals not perhaps the in-depth conservational analysis, interesting as it potentially is.

 

Rating: 2.5/5

Beyond Beauty: Transforming the Body in Ancient Egypt at Two Temple Place, London

Two Temple Place is a relatively unknown exhibition space on the Victoria Embankment area that I first visited 4 years ago for an exhibition on William Morris. The house itself is Late Victorian with an amazing staircase with figures from the Three Musketeers (my favourite book) and some pretty snazzy stained glass. Both essentials in any house in my opinion.

The exhibition is set over two floors with the first focusing on the Egyptian attitude towards the living and the second on the elaborate burial process. Whilst you often see artefacts associated with burial practices such as canopic jars and other ephemera, it was the first floor that really made the exhibition stand out. Unusual objects such as thousand year old hair extensions, eyeliner storage vessels and make-up palettes in the shape of tilapia fish gave a glimpse at what an Ancient Egyptian Boots could have potentially looked like.

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Face from sarcophagus at Abydos (once capital of Upper Egypt) with inlaid eyes.

 

The exhibition also explained artistic conventions with men and women being depicted with different skin colours and interesting facts such as how kohl eyeliner was possibly worn because it had anti-bacterial qualities and not just for aesthetic reasons. Also on display was a tombstone to the “Keeper of the Department of Stores” used to illustrate Egyptian dress, however misreading this job title resulted in a rather surreal daydream about a slightly unusual John Lewis. It had been a long day.

“Beyond Beauty” helps us see the everyday Ancient Egyptians, which in some ways breaks the mould. Museums often present the mummification process as if it where the whole of Ancient Egyptian culture. Maybe this is why they often seem so mythical because frequently the objects that made up their daily lives such as the jewellery, combs and perfume jars they used are side-lined and by giving both the living and the dead equal focus this exhibition definitely is worth a visit.

Rating: 4.5/5

Also wow! Been a while since I wrote anything here, mainly due to the stress of sometimes having three essay deadlines at university a week and also having to move away from London (hopefully only temporarily). Anyway, enough of my pathetic excuses and time to start writing again 🙂

 

 

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