Tutankhamun and the Terracotta Army

Article excerpt

London is boasting two 'blockbusters'. 'The [O.sub.2]' (formerly Millennium Dome), at Greenwich, presents Tutankhamun and the golden age of the pharaohs while The First Emperor: China's terracotta army occupies the British Museum's Reading Room. Both display funerary assemblages intended to provide for after-worlds like those of the living. The design of both exhibitions evokes Howard Carter's anticipation in working his way into Tutankhamun's tomb. What, then, can admirers learn from them about 'ancient civilisation'?

Both kings' reigns were critical. Tutankhamun's regime (c. 1361-1352 BC) evidently decided to reverse Akhenaten's economic and monotheistic reform. Considering the issue of landownership, the apparent importance of religion in ancient Egypt, and the otherwise uneventful history of Dynastic iconography, the politics must have been fraught. In northern China, the 'First Emperor' completed the region's unification by force but soon after he was buried, in 210 BC, his regime collapsed in civil war.

Emperor

The First Emperor opened on 13 September 2007 and runs until 6 April 2008. It comprises 134 exhibits. Most of them come from the excavations of the great funerary complex for the Qin (Chin) 'First Emperor', including a dozen of the famous life-size and lifelike figures of attendants and animals first discovered in 1974. Almost half of the exhibits are from the Museum of the Terracotta Warriors, the rest from 13 other collections in China along with a contribution of money pieces from the British Museum itself. Four of the exhibits are replicas or models, and the British Museum contributes a rubbing too.

We spiral past displays providing background before reaching the centrepiece, eight of the soldiers with five horses. The first section is devoted to rulership and war in the Qin era; the second presents aspects of the ceremonial culture, and the third and fourth show administrative artefacts (texts, a seal, weights and measures, coinage). The next two are on architecture. Then, on passing through a vestibule describing the site, we reach the central display, which is surrounded by supplementary exhibits, including two more human figures and a striking trio of life-size water birds in bronze. The central display comprises figures from Pits 1 and 2 assembled in a 'typical' formation. It is enlivened by projecting a synoptic view of the site and images of other finds onto the surrounding walls along with a small re-enactment of how the tomb was built. There is a short section, at the end, about chemical analysis of some of the materials found in the mausoleum.

The techniques of presentation are excellent. The exhibits are well spaced, well lit and accompanied by a readable descriptive text. The gallery is full of very attentive visitors. They do crowd around the labels, but all in all, the experience is just about tolerable. The catalogue is a fine and scholarly book (Portal 2007). The exhibition's basic concept is another matter, however.

Pharaoh

The [O.sub.2]'s show is spectacular but the Egyptian burial was small, by comparison. Tutankhamun opened on 15 November 2007 and runs until 30 August 2008. The core is an exhibition from the Cairo Museum that has toured Basle, Bonn and the USA. London is its last stop. It comprises about 130 pieces, mostly from the pharaoh's tomb and others in the Valley of the Kings. Many were among the 50 that came to the British Museum on the 50th anniversary (1972) of Carter's discovery (Edwards 1972).

The exhibition is arranged in a series of small and medium-sized rooms on two floors linked by stairs and lift. Upstairs (by escalator), the larger part of the exhibition is devoted to royalty (notably, a glossy sculpture of Tuthmosis IV and his mother and a wooden statue of Amenhotep II), household vessels, religion, including Akhenaten's distinctive art, and, dominated by the great gilt coffin of Tjuya, a dim bur sumptuous gallery devoted to the cult of the dead. …