“Egypt: The Time of the Pharaohs” at the Royal BC Museum

It has been over 14 years since the British Museum’s Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art from the British Museum was displayed on the Canadian West Coast. Now, ancient Egypt returns to Victoria, BC with Egypt: the Time of the Pharaohs at the Royal BC Museum. On display until December 31, 2018, it features over 300 artefacts drawn from several European institutions. Full of ambition, the exhibition introduces the visitor to the main characteristics of thousands of years of ancient Egyptian history. The Nile Scribes were pleased to visit Egypt: The Time of the Pharaohs this summer and present our thoughts in this week’s blog.

A large exhibition board is centre stage on the street corner near the museum (photo: Nile Scribes)

The Time of the Pharaohs

The objects in Egypt: the Time of the Pharaohs are mainly drawn from the collections of the University of Aberdeen Museum in Scotland and the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany, with a few contributions from the Museum of Vancouver, Canada. Further international objects come from the Gustav Lübcke Museum in Hamm and the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, both in Germany. As a collaborative effort with the German company Museumspartner, main curator Christian Tietze also integrated interactive installations and several substantial reconstructed models of temples and dwellings.

Assuming no prior knowledge on the part of the visitor (all you need to bring is your excitement and curiosity for ancient Egypt), the exhibition rightly begins by highlighting the unique landscape of the Nile Valley and its importance to the ancient Egyptian world.

Digital animations depicting a recreation of the inundation of the Nilotic landscape in ancient Egypt (photo: Nile Scribes)
Digital animations depicting a recreation of the inundation of the Nilotic landscape in ancient Egypt (photo: Nile Scribes)

A thematic approach takes the visitor through Egyptian religion. In one case, a monumental head of Sekhmet sits on the left with smaller objects next to her with only minor labelling identifying the object. The range of objects appear to date from the Late Period, and in the majority of cases, names are given with their Greek instead of Egyptian names (e.g. Thoeris for Taweret). Is it an attempt to emphasise the multi-cultural setting of the Late Period with its increased number of Greek inhabitants? As for the dark environment of the room, it make us think of the darkness before creation, the darkness that also surrounds the holy of holies in an Egyptian temple.

A large head of Sekhmet dominates the dark-lit display with other religious objects on the right (photo: Nile Scribes)
A large head of Sekhmet dominates the dark-lit display with other religious objects on the right (photo: Nile Scribes)

Egyptian Pharaohs

A grand part of the exhibit on Egyptian kings awaits the visitor next. Familiar figures such as Thutmose III, Akhenaten, and Ramesses II were the highlights here – their names written in large letters above objects from their reigns. Six pharaohs are featured this way, including Khufu as the great pyramid builder, Hatshepsut as the famous woman king, and Amenhotep III from Egypt’s Golden Age. We would have liked to see major figures from the Middle Kingdom or the Late Period represented as well.

As for the information on the kings in this part, some information left more to be desired for the viewer. For example, the viewer learns about Akhenaten, the “Rebel Pharaoh”, for he unleashed his monotheistic revolution on Egypt. By adopting this stereotypical view of his reign, this approach was very simplified and did not incorporate much of recent interpretations which emphasise more henotheistic tendencies that were prevalent in his reign.

The exhibition explains nicely the overemphasis usually placed on Tutankhamun in Egyptological publications (Photo: Nile Scribes)
The exhibition explains nicely the overemphasis usually placed on Tutankhamun in Egyptological publications (Photo: Nile Scribes)

A display panel near the end of this part poses the question as to why Tutankhamun and Cleopatra were not included: Tutankhamun because of his apparent unimportance, and Cleopatra because her life ‘fall[s] just outside the period of our story.’ It is curious, however, that objects from her time period (that is the Ptolemaic Period) are also found throughout the exhibition such as a wooden statue of Ptah-Soker-Osiris dating to the Ptolemaic Period.

The reconstructed workshop of the sculptor Thutmose preserves evidence for many technological processes (Photo: Nile Scribes)
The reconstructed workshop of the sculptor Thutmose preserves evidence for many technological processes (Photo: Nile Scribes)

Reconstructing the Past

The exhibition benefits from some excellent models which are used at several points throughout. In one example, a bust from the Aberdeen Museum collection shows the head of a Ptolemaic ruler and its accompanying grid emphasises the conventions the original artist used. Wooden models of a carpenter’s square and a plummet are shown as tools and a lovely reconstruction provides direct insight into the famous workshop of Thutmose at Amarna – the place of discovery of Nefertiti’s bust. In the section on Egyptian temples, the Small Aten Temple from Amarna dominates as a scaled reconstruction and animated lighting is used to bring alive a ritual of presenting offerings to the hungry sun-god.

 

Reconstructing a ritual at the Small Temple of the Aten at Amarna (Video: Nile Scribes)

Objects of Daily Life

A major section explored the wide range of objects Egyptians would have used in their day-to-day activities. Of course, most of the finds discussed here come from a funerary context which shows the objects’ importance to be carried into the afterlife. The section also contains a note about the “discovery” of ancient Egypt and attributes the majority of it to the Napoleonic expedition. While this event marks the birth of Egyptology as a professional discipline, this approach ignores centuries of Arab interest and studies into ancient Egypt prior to Napoleon. This celebration of Napoleon is somewhat typical in our field and more attention should be turned to the many contributions earlier scholars made.

Display pillars with statues from persons of different statuses and periods dominates the room, while more mundane objects are on display in the shelves on the wall to the right (Photo: Nile Scribes)
Display pillars with statues from persons of different statuses and periods dominates the room, while more mundane objects are on display in the shelves on the wall to the right (Photo: Nile Scribes)

At the back wall is an Egyptian social pyramid which shows the king at the top, the administrators beneath, and the general populace further below. In the tier on the priesthood, the term “first prophet” is mentioned. The term “prophet” was first used by the Greeks to refer to the Egyptian priestly office of the “servant of the god” (hem-netjer). However, the term is also found often in older Egyptological publications and brings forth all sorts of Christian connotations – a usage perhaps best avoided by using the Egyptian term instead. Throughout this section, many statues of private individuals are showcased in central pillars and provide direct insight into various parts of Egyptian society.

Neferihi’s statue is made of Aswan’s famous granite with his hair painted in black (Photo: Nile Scribes)
Neferihi’s statue is made of Aswan’s famous granite with his hair painted in black (Photo: Nile Scribes)

While many minor statues were included, a personal highlight was seeing the lovely statue of Neferihi. Found in his mastaba at Giza, the stone was sourced from the famous granite quarry at Aswan in southern Egypt. While no paint is visible anywhere on the body of the statue, the deceased had his hair painted in vivid black colour. The dominating radiance of granite surely was a good choice by Neferihi. Along the wall, the visitor meets the multi-faceted material culture of Egyptians from ceramic vessels, headrests, and even a small clay figure of a man holding a giant phallus.

From miniature pottery vessels imitating their larger counterparts to the famous Meydum bowl, the diversity of Egyptian material culture is showcased here (Photo: Nile Scribes)
From miniature pottery vessels imitating their larger counterparts to the famous Meydum bowl, the diversity of Egyptian material culture is showcased here (Photo: Nile Scribes)

From Personal Items to the Afterlife

The last section takes the visitor through the exquisite and well-known icons of Egyptian jewellery and the afterlife, from fragments of the books of the underworld to several outstanding coffins which are decorated in elaborate detail. Curiously, the museum decided to forego any display of mummies though no exact explanation for this has been given (whether in the display or in the exhibition catalogue). In this part of the exhibit, the dim and dark lighting seemed appropriate as we dove into the afterlife.

A wonderful excerpt from the Ptolemaic papyrus of Padiherupakhered shows a seated Osiris before the well-known judgment scene. The Four Sons of Horus who are associated with protecting the entrails of the deceased sit in front of the god of the underworld and the monster Ammit is shown ready to pounce on the heart of the deceased were it not to pass the judgment.

A Ptolemaic papyrus shows Osiris on the left with the judgment scene in full swing before him (Photo: Nile Scribes)
A Ptolemaic papyrus shows Osiris on the left with the judgment scene in full swing before him (Photo: Nile Scribes)

Introducing the Public to Ancient Egypt

The theme of an introduction reverberates throughout the exhibition. The ambitions of Egypt: Time in the Pharaohs, as noted in the introduction to the catalogue, reveal a desire to tell “the story of the whole span of Egyptian history”. Clear influences as already noted were the larger-than-life exhibitions of Eternal Egypt and the 1972 Tutankhamun exhibition which were on display at the museum previously. In taking these various aspects together, the exhibition succeeds in introducing the visitor to the wonders of ancient Egypt through a myriad of approaches.

Nevertheless, some of the information as well as the choices in displaying the objects reinforce some outdated, challenged stories of pharaonic Egypt; we noted in several parts the simplification of many Egyptological topics. From a simplified look at the reign of Akhenaten to reproducing a complex ritual at Amarna, the exhibition nevertheless succeeded in espousing greater interest in Egypt with the diverse range of subjects handled.


The museum also produced an exhibition catalogue to accompany the exhibition: Egypt: the Time of the Pharaohs, which is available through the Museum’s website.

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