It’s been a while since a little bit of history, so we took the chance to see some fairly ancient history, about 3000-years old, with a rather extravagant, and expensive, exhibition of the Treasures of Tutankhamun. That involved a trip to the posher parts of London and the new venue to us of the Saatchi Gallery; a trip complicated (as these things always seem to be) by transport closures which meant we had a little walk from Victoria (which strangely we could get straight to), arriving nicely in time for our timed ticket (though that was the point it decided to rain for the only time of the day!)
Timed tickets should in theory help prevent crowding, as people trickle in during the allocated time slot. Unfortunately the approach taken here was to herd everyone into a small room (with the opportunity to have your photo taken and digitally mapped into a tomb—more fairground experience than museum). We were then crowded into a second room, where we basically had to wait while watching a video that felt more marketing material than informative (a strange choice for a captive audience who had already forked out a considerable sum to be there). Only then were we unleashed on the actual exhibits, with the room full of visitors springing forward as one, all eager for a glimpse of the now obviously crowded cases.
Those cases were full of the bling, the shiny objects which catch the eye. This was full on treasure showing, with barely a hint of history. Anyone wanting context of Tutankhamun’s life need look elsewhere, for this was all about the splendour and grandeur of his death.
In the first, overcrowded, gallery that splendour began not with items to follow the pharaoh into the afterlife but things to contain them; a sequence of jars, boxes, and cases. Some of the jars were works of art themselves, delicate filigree and traced decoration. Elsewhere cases were clearly shaped for the meat joints they would contain, and in one notable case, a chicken or similar fowl. There were a couple of more intimate items interspersed—gloves, delicate and decorative, and a wonderful pen holder (it was a disappointment to find the gift shop at the end didn’t include a replica).
Through to the next, still too crowded, space and things did become more about items rather than their holders. Though it started quietly with model boats (which would magically transform to full size for Tutankhamun’s use in the afterlife) and, of all things, boomerangs, this was the beginning of the bling. A golden fan was cleverly displayed with delicate lighting to represent its long lost feathers—probably the one piece of inventive display within the entire exhibition—was only the start as soon the gilded statues of Tut appeared.
Here he was standing astride a skiff, ready to harpoon a hippo. Here boldly standing astride a platform on top a (absurdly long tailed) leopard, staff and flail in hand (and quite prominent breasts suggesting this might not originally have been Tut). Another with the by now familiar tall, conical crown, holds royal crook and flail. Interspersed were more things of glory. Bows and arrows and their decorative case. Intricately carved shields, decorative more than practical, and complex representations of gods which to modern eyes appear slightly crazed.
Having wandered the first couple of galleries we tried to leave the crowd behind by finding the cafe and some lunch. This was located in the basement, easily accessible by lift. The cafe itself though is, bizarrely, completely inaccessible without heading down some stairs, the only nod to those incapable of doing so a single table overlooking the sunken area—perhaps they could use some of the high ticket prices to correct that. At least the food was okay, though the space a bit echoing and impersonal.
Refreshed we headed back upstairs for more treasure. The next gallery began with a reminder of Tutankhamun’s youth when coming to kingship, a child sized chair that perhaps was once used in life, and a bed (one of several in the tomb) that looked barely big enough for an adult. There were also reminders of that kingship; a series of Shabti, servants for the dead (strangely many of them (exquisitely) modelled on the king himself). These mixed with models of strangely headed gods.
A highlight was a canopic jar stopper, a simply beautiful bust of the Tutankhamun. This hovered above a stunning holder for the king’s liver, a delicate, golden coffinette that evokes the full version (and cropped photos of which were cynically used in publicity to trap the unwary into believing the famous golden mask was available for viewing).
That brought us, finally, to concentrate on the pharaoh himself. Tutankhamun’s mummy wrappings held numerous amulets and other jewellery, some of which were arranged in cases surrounding the room’s centre piece. There, under another long, glass case, a faux mummy adorned with a selection of the golden trappings of burial. I can see why the curators took that approach, and it is almost the only nod to contextual information for what is being seen, but it does leave that enduring image, the golden mask, conspicuous by its absence. Still, there were golden hands holding golden flail and hook, golden toes (to protect the real toes but looking like a nightmare vision arranged standing here), a golden sandals, and the golden bands which once imitated the mummy bindings. Treasure indeed.
Moving away from what was obviously designed to be the wow moment of the exhibition the galleries became a bit quieter and for some reason emptier. Finally an attempt at real information appeared, with a simple timeline (though it spoke more of the tomb’s discovery by Howard Carter than saying anything about the ancient history it represents). A family tree shows the incestuous route to Tutankhamun’s birth, his father having taken a fancy to a “younger lady” who was his own sister. The items though were mainly back to boxes, though a little highlight for me was a small gaming board, complete with pieces.
The final gallery space was something of a disappointment. In an obvious decision to go for a dramatic effect the quite large space contained nothing but a colossal statue of Tutankhamun, which wasn’t even from the long lost tomb. The effect certainly works, briefly, but one is left wondering why some of the other items couldn’t have been here, to more fully utilise the space available, and lessen the crowding and jostling to move around.
All that remained was the gift shop. At least the selection was pretty decent, though the expense was in no way reducing (£1 for a single postcard!) An eye-watering accompanying book cost approaching double a ticket to the exhibition it covered, but we bought one anyway on the basis that (allegedly at least) this is the final time any of these, or other Tut objects, will leave Cairo.