The current exhibition at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery has one month left to run. The museum has been generous enough in offering several days of free entry, one of which was yesterday. I was rather surprised to find the exhibition space fairly quiet, although I should qualify this statement by saying that there were at least two classes of school children who had most likely just finished. But within the hour and a bit I spent in Pharaoh: King of Egypt there was no more than a handful of other people present. Those that I saw were mainly women, or women with young children. Perhaps this says more about who it is that has the capacity and time to wander around exhibitions on a Friday afternoon but I had expected greater excitement or at least a greater uptake on a free Friday, after all this is a major touring exhibition from the British Museum.
I certainly think the exhibition deserves excitement. The loan of over one hundred objects is the largest ever undertaken by the British Museum and the design and focus of the exhibition has a very particular objective; to explore the concept and role of a Pharaoh and his (or hers, as in the case of Hatshepsut) various guises, e.g. Priest, Ruler, God or King.
A huge granite sculpture of the Goddess Sekhmet stands to greet you as you enter the gallery. The damage to her face does little to detract from the suggestion of greatness within her form and the general preservation of the artefacts is remarkable; the paint of many of the stela’s is still in tact and the sculptures in some cases, look new, so treasured are they.
One may be forgiven for expecting to suffer with shabti fatigue but the curators sensibly opted for the less is more approach, and the example show pieces of these popular tomb companions have been beautifully selected. The bright blue shabti of Pharaoh Pinudjem from 1069 – 656 BC is a breathtaking reminder of the traces of blue I once saw on a ceiling in the Saqqara temple plateau, many moons ago.
As well as bits of ostracon there are perhaps less expected items: including a 2500 year old loaf of bread and a 3000 year-old wooden bed whose golden legs are those of the revered bull. The wide ranging set of objects is designed to inform us about the role of a Pharaoh but tangentially it also provides a glimpse into the life and output of the unnamed Egyptians responsible for the many items the British Museum has in its collection. A huge stone chunk of a sketch informs us about the process of temple decoration designs and serves to remind us that a Pharaoh was heavily dependent on his people’s loyalty, skill and output. Constant visual messages aligning the many Pharaohs with Ra and Osiris ensured that worker bees did not forget and the Great Harris Papyrus procession showing Ramesses III before the Triad of Thebes (1200 BC) is key to our exploration of their reverence. The role of a Pharaoh was to transcend man’s limitations and even death.
Pharaonic reputations depended on visual glory, and their eternal life depended on earthly investment. Fine examples of jewellery, which furnished the reputation of the Pharaoh, clearly demonstrate great skill on the part of Egyptian artisans. There really are some superb pieces which scream modernity in their use of line whilst capturing a delicacy fitting for someone who was both man and God to his people. These expensive, highly stylised items seem of a quality that even Croesus could barely have afforded.
Other objects draw out suggestions of domesticity among the non-royal Egyptians and we see glimpses of their dignity through examples like the water clock or the bread already mentioned. Reminders of man’s pettiness also creep in through diplomatic letters which relate to tense relationships and present buying political appeasements. The ongoing management and need for political machinations is captured perfectly through the inclusion of a small marble bust of Alexander the Great and also in a clay letter which discusses the imminent arrival and marriage of a Babylonian Princess. Trade, politics, marriage, union, death, life and faith can all be found in this exhibition. Along with bright blue flashes of blue faience, a sight to behold.
As a Victorianist, it was certainly nice to see the inclusion of the Harris Papyri and shows, once again, how much we are indebted to the Victorian’s for their ruthless appropriation of world treasures. Without their desire to explore and learn, it is feasibly such fine examples would not only be absent from our country’s public collections but they may have been lost forever into the black market. However, without wishing to ignite any arguments, I will conclude with the suggestion you go and see these fine Egyptian artefacts in their present display, Pharaoh: King of Egypt Exhibition.