Andante discover King Tut at the Ashmolean!28th July 2014
Outermost coffin (C) Griffith Institute, University of Oxford
By Jenni Lane
At 16:00 last Wednesday afternoon, Gudrun Schmid, Mary Reynolds, Oliver Gilkes, Denise Allen and I left the office a little earlier than usual. But we weren’t sneaking off to enjoy the sunshine – however tempting – but heading to Oxford, and the new temporary ‘Discovering Tutankhamun’ exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum.
The exhibition opened on the 24th July and runs until the 2nd November, but we were lucky enough to have been asked to attend a special private viewing. It was also another opportunity to see the Ashmolean again in its relatively newly-refurbished state, now very suave and clean with sweeping architectural lines & shapes, cool open spaces & beautifully laid-out galleries and displays.
‘Discovering Tutankhamun’, as the name suggests, is not designed to showcase the actual finds and grave goods of the ‘Boy King’ (now unlikely to ever leave Cairo again), nor about his life or circumstances as a young Pharaoh. Instead, it traces the captivating story from the discovery, opening, recording, emptying and preservation of Tutankhamun’s tomb, through the overwheming global media hype surrounding the find and into its modern-day significance in the place of Egyptology.
The exhibition starts by introducing the main characters: archaeologist Howard Carter, a Norfolk country boy turned Egyptologist and his employer, George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. It tells how they worked together to reveal the tomb, Carter finally gaining his first peak inside by candle light in February 1922, immortalised with this famous exchange:
Carnavon: “Can you see anything?”
Carter: “Yes, wonderful things.”
Portrait of Howard Carter, by William Carter (C) Griffith Institute, University of Oxford
The displays then follow the intricate recording and preservation process pursued by Carter in the following months and years. Many artefacts from his extensive archive, now housed at the Griffith Institute at the University of Oxford, were on display: crisp – almost untouched - pages of Carter’s diary describing his exploits, scrawled letters to his colleagues and friends in which he can hardly contain his excitement, and incredibly detailed drawings, sketches and paintings of his finds. You also learn about the tomb’s photographer, Harry Burton, and the techniques he used and the lengths he went to record, as best he could, the artefacts in the hot, stuffy and cramped tomb.
Perhaps my favourite item on display was the photograph taken of Carter and a colleague painstakingly examining the inner-most coffin – it must have been his real jewel, the mummy of Tutankhamun himself. You can also see all of Carter’s anatomical drawings of the mummy, as the unwrapping of each layer revealing new treasures draped over the body, beautifully showcasing his talent and eye for detail. I couldn’t help but think it a shame Carter didn’t live to see the X-rays taken in 1968 – a more modern scientific endeavour to find out more about the King.
Howard Carter & an Egyptian assistant (C) Griffith Insitute, University of Oxford
The exhibition then took us out of Egypt and around the world. Every school child has heard of King Tutankhamun today, but I wasn’t quite aware of the scale of the media whirlwind which followed after his tomb’s discovery. For example, the huge uproar when The Times newspaper was given sole rights to the photographs produced from the tomb. Or the Tut themed ‘Snakes and Ladders’, sheet music in his honour, airline posters and lemon adverts, Egyptian-inspired ladies blazers – the list goes on! I was blown away by the 1920s 'King Tut' craze and can only think to liken it to a modern-day Harry Potter obsession, a figure who inspires generations old and young alike.
“There is only one topic of conversation … One cannot escape the name of Tut-Ankh-Amen anywhere. It is shouted in the streets, whispered in the hotels, while the local shops advertise Tut-Ankh-Amen art, Tut-Ankh-Amen hats, Tut-Ankh-Amen curios, Tut-Ankh-Amen photographs, and tomorrow probably genuine Tut-Ankh-Amen antiquities…There is a Tut-Ankh-Amen dance tonight at which the piece is to be a Tut-Ankh-Amen rag.” New York Times, February 1923
Old King Tut Sheet Music Cover (C) Brier Remner collection
One of the more touching examples of the sensation caused by the discovery were the letters written to Carter by youngsters congratulating him on the finds, some claiming to now want to be an archaeologist like him ‘when they grew up’. Illegible handwriting and spelling mistakes to boot - you can’t help but feel the excitement of the letters' authors almost bursting out of the page as they dreamed of finding their own treasure.
As you reach the end of the exhibition, you have your own chance to get involved in the hype. The gift shop is packed with ‘Tut-mania’ items and we left the museum clutching our own posters, notebooks, pens and books before sitting down at dinner to discuss which bits we had each enjoyed best…
We are running a series of three special Study Days to coincide with the exhibition. Please click here for more information.