Exhibiting Relics Of An Ancient World - By: Catherine Harvey
One of the most fascinating exhibitions of modern times has to be that of King Tutankhamen. The Victorians developed a fascination for Egyptology and the burial place of King Tut himself was unearthed in late 1922. This led to exhibition designs really taking off as a way to show off Egyptian artefacts around the world but it also led to a press frenzy about a supposed curse on those who had opened the tomb.
Lord Carnarvon funded the searches of Howard Carter in their quest to find the tomb of the unknown king and he was the first to die shortly after the discovery was made. What led the people to believe a curse was responsible was the fact that Lord Carnarvon is said to have died from an infection in an insect bite to his left cheek. The moment he died it is said all the lights went out in Cairo and his pet dog, back in the UK, howled and dropped dead.
On top of this was the later added the fact that when King Tut's mummy was unwrapped, it was found there was an injury to his left cheek in exactly the same place as Lord Carnarvon's. Over the next few years the press attributed twenty one deaths of the people involved in the discovery to the curse. They also claim an inscription on the entrance to the tomb reads: "Death shall cone on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the King", although this has never been proved.
Scientists have now decided that the deaths were more likely attributable to bacteria that was released from the tombs and breathed in by all those involved and this led to their deaths in one way or another. If that is the case, then anyone attending one of the numerous Egyptology exhibitions will have no need to fear.
Exhibition design has taken on new meaning around the world with the amazing treasures of the ancients to display to their best advantage. The people responsible have to ensure their exhibition designs enhance, and do not detract, from the magnificent blues and gold's that we have come to associate with Tutankhamen but it also needs to be able to show off the more muted pottery and treasures that have been found in his, and others, tomb's.
King Tut's treasures and famous mask made one trip to the UK in 1972 when a total of 1.8 million people went to see the exhibition in London. They are now too fragile to move and so stay in Egypt but other exhibitions continue around the world to show artefacts that are still able to stand up to travelling. The o2 currently have an Egyptian themed exhibition in place that shows many treasures from Egyptian tombs but many are attending with the belief that they will see the famous mask itself and this is not so.
At the end of the day, as much as we would all like to see and feel the real thing, moving it and allowing it to be constantly subjected to lights, pressure and touch would simply destroy it and we haven't waited millennia for it to be uncovered just to lose it within 100 years. What we really want to know is how they did things, how they lived, the types of things they made and the types of things they treasured. We can glean all this from the interpretation of the hieroglyphics and the replicas of what has been found.
We do not even have to travel very far. Dorchester Museum holds an on-going King Tut exhibition that is said to be extremely impressive. The Petrie Museum in University College London has one of the oldest exhibition of everything Egyptian as it was started in 1892 by Amelia Edwards. It also shows old fashioned ideas on exhibition design! Of course, you only have to go to the British Museum to see the best exhibition of Egypt outside of the country itself.
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Expert historian Catherine Harvey looks at how exhibition design shows off artefacts to their best.