Meeting the “Queens of Egypt” in Montréal

Having opened in early April at Pointe-à-Callière in Montréal, Canada, the new exhibition Reines d’Égypte (Queens of Egypt) invites visitors on a tour of the east and west banks of the Nile during the New Kingdom. The Nile Scribes were able to visit Pointe-à-Callière this summer and see this special exhibition for ourselves. Including objects from temple, palace, and harem contexts on the east bank, the exhibition also featured objects associated with preparing for the afterlife on the west bank.

A statue of the goddess Mut awaits the visitor near the entrance - Object No. C.769 (photo: Nile Scribes)
A statue of the goddess Mut awaits the visitor near the entrance – Object No. C.769 (photo: Nile Scribes)

Queens of Egypt

In the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, the museum’s Executive Director, Francine Lelièvre explains that the exhibition was inspired by a book on women in ancient Egypt by the well-known French Egyptologist, Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt. As a result, Lelièvre became motivated to seek a partnership with the Museo Egizio and its director, Christian Greco, to bring a major exhibition on Egyptian queens to Canada. Aside from Turin’s Museo Egizio, which provided the majority of objects on display, Queens of Egypt also pulled objects from museum collections in Leiden, Brussels, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Montréal. The exhibit’s narrative is set during the height of the New Kingdom and introduces visitors to seven of its queens: Ahmose-Nefertari, Hatshepsut, Tiye, Nefertiti, Tuya, Isetnofret, and Nefertari.

From large statues and reliefs, the exhibition also has smaller finds such as this ostrakon with a sketch of a prince - Object No. S.5637 (photo: Nile Scribes)
From large statues and reliefs, the exhibition also has smaller finds such as this ostrakon with a sketch of a prince – Object No. S.5637 (photo: Nile Scribes)

Organisation of the Exhibition

With more than 350 objects in the exhibition, the visitor can prepare to spend several hours meeting a vast array of Egyptian material culture, particularly from Thebes during the New Kingdom. The displays are divided into spaces on two floors of the museum: (1) on the first floor, the visitor walks through a temple, a palace, and a harem, before moving up to (2) the second floor, where the visitor meets the burial grounds of the kings and queens as well as the village at Deir el-Medina. The village housed the craftsmen who built the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings during the New Kingdom. In each room, projectors cast large clips from the recent game Assassin’s Creed: Origins onto a blank wall to provide a visual setting to the displays: a temple scene, a view of the river, a reimagined market place. In these spaces with the sounds from the game playing around us, it is easy to imagine walking into a bustling temple and seeing these sacred objects in their original places.

Display cases are designed with colourful motifs drawn from Egyptian art (photo: Nile Scribes)
Display cases are designed with colourful motifs drawn from Egyptian art (photo: Nile Scribes)

Display cases throughout are decorated with motifs drawn from Egyptian art and each object is identified not only with a brief description, but also with a date, provenience (if available), and the museum from whence it comes (often called a boilerplate label). The lack of provenience in many cases is questionable and may not at first be noticeable to the viewer. In today’s world, where museums and other cultural institutions are grappling still with the reality of illegal excavations and antiquities smuggling, we are obligated to continue the conversation about the provenience of objects and how they arrived at their home institution. This, of course, is not to say that these objects ought not to be displayed, but this critical caveat should have been highlighted more effectively in an exhibition whose objects come from European and North American collections.

The tomb of Nefertari impresses with its lavishly decorated walls and huge sarcophagus in this reconstruction (photo: Nile Scribes)
The tomb of Nefertari impresses with its lavishly decorated walls and huge sarcophagus in this reconstruction (photo: Nile Scribes)

The final room of the exhibition is a reproduction of the tomb of the Ramesside Queen Nefertari (QV 66), which is arguably one of the best preserved royal tombs from any period of Egyptian history. While the vibrancy of the original tomb reliefs in the Valley of the Queens is impossible to truly capture in facsimiles, the colours and simulated starry night’s sky which hangs above her sarcophagus transports you in spirit to her subterranean burial in Luxor. The lid of Nefertari’s sarcophagus, which was carved from pink granite, is badly fragmented today and is usually housed in Turin’s Museo Egizio. Accompanying the remains of her sarcophagus lid and discretely displayed beside it without a label are all that remained of her mummy when her tomb was rediscovered in 1904: a pair of mummified knees.

The pink granite lid of Nefertari's sarcophagus and beside it, discretely displayed, Nefertari's mummified remains (photo: Nile Scribes)
The pink granite lid of Nefertari’s sarcophagus and beside it, discretely displayed, Nefertari’s mummified remains (photo: Nile Scribes)

Creating the Environment

A highlight throughout Queens of Egypt was the use of immersive digital technology, effectively creating an environment that brings the past alive around the visitor. While many such attempts to incorporate digital worlds into museum displays are rendered in a simplistic, perhaps disinvolved manner, the exhibition designers worked closely with Ubisoft (one of the exhibit’s sponsors) and succeeded in using it to enhance the visitor’s experience of the displays rather than distract from them. A local video game developing company, Ubisoft recently produced an ancient Egypt-themed instalment of their long-running game series, Assassin’s Creed: Origins and video clips from this game provide the backdrop in many of the exhibition rooms (1). In several places in the exhibit, visitors could also watch pre-recorded ‘tours’ through the Discovery Mode portion of Assassin’s Creed: Origins.

Upon entering the exhibit, visitors find themselves in a simulated temple space where three monumental statues of the goddess Sekhmet line the wall. Projected onto the wall beside them is a reconstruction of how an Egyptian holy of holies (djeser djeseru) may have looked: the cult statue of Sekhmet stands in a shrine at the centre and before her kneels a priest. This short clip of a reimagined temple ritual from thousands of years ago helps us to connect with the Sekhmet statues not simply as works of art on display for our enjoyment, but as sacred, cultic objects far removed from their original contexts.

The exhibition space imagining the royal harem beside the river Nile (photo: Nile Scribes)
The exhibition space imagining the royal harem beside the river Nile (photo: Nile Scribes)

These videos aside, the highly immersive quality of the exhibition is especially evident when you visit the section on the Royal Harem. Imitating the interactive ‘smelling stations’ in many of the Museo Egizio’s displays in Turin, Queens of Egypt also incorporated five scent jars into the Royal Harem display, described as the scents that may have been worn by Egyptian queens. To a backdrop of the Nile river and sounds of birds overhead, visitors can enjoy the scents of myrrh, mint, cinnamon, jasmine, and frankincense. In the Royal Harem, the exhibit attempts the feeling of an Egyptian harem, though it expresses the western imagination of a Middle Eastern palace more than the reality. A discussion of the archaeological evidence for Egyptian palaces and harems is conspicuously missing from this display. In reality, what exactly do we know about palaces? The answer: not much. Many people are surprised to learn that royal palaces were built from mudbrick, like all ancient Egyptian homes – stone was reserved for the houses of the gods (temples) and the houses of the dead (tombs).

A well-known Egyptian papyrus called the Turin Judiciary Papyrus records a plot to kill Ramesses III - Object No. C.1875 (photo: Nile Scribes)
A well-known Egyptian papyrus called the Turin Judiciary Papyrus records a plot to kill Ramesses III – Object No. C.1875 (photo: Nile Scribes)

A star of the exhibition is the Turin Judiciary Papyrus that accompanied many of the objects in the exhibit from its modern home at the Museo Egizio. In large, beautiful hieratic script (the cursive version of hieroglyphs), the papyrus records in great detail a plot to kill Ramesses III and the resulting capture and punishment of the persons responsible. If the plot was thwarted, it seems to have only temporarily delayed the king’s assassination – his mummy still bears the mark of a deep cut in the king’s throat.

Three Sekhmet statues from the reign of Amenhotep III greet the visitor in the temple display (photo: Nile Scribes)
Three Sekhmet statues from the reign of Amenhotep III greet the visitor in the temple display (photo: Nile Scribes)

Final Thoughts

Despite the attention to the royal toilette in the Harem display and the starry finish with Nefertari’s tomb, the exhibit unfortunately leaves the visitor with a distinctly unanswered question: where are the queens? While visually stunning from every angle, the exhibit feels ill equipped to deliver on its promise of ‘Queens of Egypt’ as it is supported by such objects as the shabtis of Seti I, a statue of Thutmose I, several private stelae, and a large collection of craftsmen’s materials from Deir el-Medina. On the whole, however, the exhibit delivered a memorable Egyptian experience and we recommend seeing it if you have the chance! If you’re unable to see this exhibit in person, check out the beautiful exhibit catalogue, Queens of Egypt, which was published by Beaux Arts & Cie in Paris.

Notes

  1. Also see our interview with the Egyptologist, Perrine Poiron, who worked with Ubisoft in rendering ancient Egypt in an accurate fashion.

Taylor and Thomas are grateful to our Patrons for helping us cover the costs of Nile Scribes. This week we want to thank our Patreon sponsor Henry Bleattler – we couldn’t do it without you!

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