Curator's Diary, March 2016: Examining coffins and the display of 'beauty'
I recently visited two current Egyptological exhibitions. The first was 'Beyond Beauty: Transforming the Body in Ancient Egypt' at Two Temple Place in London. 'Beyond Beauty' presents a diverse range of objects from small Egyptology collections around the UK, with particular attention paid to archaeological context and the role of regional funding in supporting British archaeologists excavating in Egypt. It is, therefore, something of an irony that at least one of the lending institutions is threatened with closure and the exhibition is being staged in the heart of London.
The venue, Two Temple Place, is undeniably stunning. It provides a stark contrast to the Pharaonic items on display, without being immediately overwhelming. 'Beauty' is the organising theme, from cosmetic items and jewellery to the idealised form of beauty represented by the decorated coffin. Because the ideals of eternal beauty and perfection pervaded (elite) Egyptian society, there is a feeling that everything and anything Egyptian might, conveniently, fit the bill for inclusion. Yet the exhibition's interpretation succeeds in saying something meaningful about ideals of beauty in different contexts – both in the ancient and modern world (witness the gift shop).
A real strength is that the material in the exhibition is either not usually on display or is somehow lost in its usual display setting. There is an admirable emphasis on the process of the chances of archaeological discovery, export and subsequent acquisition by UK institutions. The fact that even fairly badly damaged pieces (such as the key image used in marketing) appeal to our modern aesthetic sensibilities is a testament to the intrinsic 'beauty' of (and our voracious appetite for) Pharaonic things today.
This theme is echoed in the exhibition 'Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt' at the Fitzwilliam Museum, part of the University of Cambridge. This show focuses on Egyptian coffins, drawn largely from the Fitz's own (impressive) collection.
There has been a notable increase in Egyptian coffin studies in the last few years, with new techniques more and more being applied to understand their construction, as once those techniques were solely focussed on mummies. This research work is clearly the chief inspiration for the exhibition, with a focus on materials and the crafting of coffins. Lengthy interpretation emphasises this. Borrowing the idea, perhaps, from a recent exhibition on the Bab el Gasus cache in Leiden, a conservation lab is recreated in the exhibition space to great effect. There were audible gasps when visitors I observed realised that no glass stood in the way of them and the 'action'. This work has revealed many new facets to the coffins – not least the prevalence of extensive reuse.
Here too, as in Two Temple Place, the broken – and rather sad-looking – components of coffins are shown as objects worth of display in their own right. Often, in bigger collections with more well-preserved examples, these broken parts have been relegated to storerooms (we have many in Manchester, for sure). It is therefore refreshing – and actually much more representative of the nature of Egyptology collections as a whole – to show these dismembered parts. Even as orphaned hands and faces (again, a coffin face is used as 'cover image') these items still have a distinct appeal, which perhaps explains why they were so commonly collected and, therefore, are largely without a secure archaeological provenance.
As very often in Egypt-themed exhibitions, it was not clear to me that visitors to either show fully understood the intended thematic selection of pieces. In that way, both exhibitions highlight the continued, inherent appeal of displays of (recognisably) Egyptian material, regardless of the clever connections we museum sorts think we're making. Ultimately, the general public isn't overly concerned with these.
The enduring fascination with (pretty and recognisable) Egyptian things shows no signs of decline.
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