Pharaonic Egypt has been blessed, or cursed, with a popular appeal that no other ancient civilisation can match. Its jackal-headed gods and glinting treasures have gripped our imagination since 1801, when Napoleon's army returned from Cairo laden with statues, papyri and pilfered grave-goods. From those light-fingered colonialists to B-movie directors and modern tour operators, kitsch, commerce and downright greed have been an inseparable part of Egyptology's history.
So, the camp and glitz of "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs", brought to us by Arts and Exhibitions International (the commercial curators also responsible for "Diana: a Celebration", which is currently on show in Australia) in the less-than-scholarly surroundings of the former Millennium Dome, London, should have come as no surprise. Fastidious critics have been horrified by the venue ("utter bleakness"), the galleries, music and lighting ("theme park"), the selection of artefacts ("a meagre handful"), the [pounds sterling]15-[pounds sterling]20 admission charge ("rapacious") and the now-notorious gift shop ("shamelessly tacky").
There is a whiff of snake oil about the show. It is the first time these treasures have been displayed without the imprimatur of a respected museum--the partner organisations are National Geographic magazine and Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. Especially compared to the British Museum's serious-minded "Treasures of Tutankhamun" in 1972, this is partly about the money. Kellogg's is the "official cereal partner"; the shop sells King Tut shot glasses ([pounds sterling]6.95) and "ancient, mysterious fragrance oils". Yet it is also about the politics and spin of a big-money discipline with colonial roots. Zahi Hawass, the outspoken head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, has masterminded publicity for the exhibition, letting it be known in passing that the British Museum has not yet agreed to lend the Rosetta Stone for the opening of Cairo's new Egyptian Museum in 2012, and stating incorrectly that Egypt "didn't get a penny" from the British Museum show.
So do the 130 objects displayed at the O2 survive the tat, the wrangling and the hype? The critics are wrong--they do. In fact, the spacious, well-lit exhibition shows off the sheer beauty of its contents better than any other display I have seen (and far better than the cramped, dilapidated galleries of the state-run Egyptian Museum in Cairo). At least some of its trappings are surprisingly sober--even improving. Labels, wall panels and maps provide clear and thoughtful information about the life and times of the 18th dynasty and their subjects. Even the audio guide, if you can keep a straight face through Omar Sharif's breathy narration, is perfectly sensible.
This is just as well, because the show navigates some choppy historical waters. Tutankhamun is often described as an "insignificant" pharaoh, no match for the glorious conquerors Ramses II and Tuthmosis III. But the …