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  • Writer's pictureSetken

A Tale Of 3 Blockbuster Ancient Egypt Exhibitions

The artist and author looks on at a statue of King Seti II, Dynasty 19, Pharaoh exhibition at NGV

photo by Paul Compton


Australia has had no less than 3 international exhibitions grace its shores over the past 8 months. Ramses and The Gold Of The Pharaohs in Sydney finished only weeks before Pharaoh opened in Melbourne last week; in the meantime the Canberra show Discovering Ancient Egypt will continue until just before Pharaoh closes in October.


As an artist whose central theme is Kemeticism and Ancient Egypt, each of these exhibitions has contributed enormously to my creative practice and provided monumental inspiration.


The reviews below examine each show from my perspective, providing a light commentary and photo curation of some of my favourite pieces.

 

Bring On The K-Bling:

Ramses and The Gold Of The Pharaohs 

Australian Museum, Sydney

November 18, 2023, to 19 May, 2024


Much fanfare was made for the fact that the biggest display of Ancient Egyptian antiquities in Australia for over a decade was coming to Sydney.


Boasting artefacts from the collection of the Cairo Museum itself (although whether these will eventually go back there or to the new Grand Egyptian Museum instead is to be determined) and featuring items that I personally consider some of the most exquisite from Pharaonic history, I am very grateful that I got to see this just weeks before it closed.



From the monumental front image of King Ramses II’s great temple at Abu Simbel, to a replica of the tomb of Sennedjem next to the Valley Of The Kings, some planning had gone in to how the pieces would be exhibited over two floors of Sydney’s Australian Museum.


Dim lighting helped create an enchanting atmosphere, and even though some of the multimedia presentations were somewhat intrusive to this, it was sustained throughout despite the challenge of accommodating two floors and an escalator.


As the title to this review suggests, there was a lot of precious metal items featured, most coming from the Dynasty 21 finds of Pierre Montet in 1939. Montet’s share of archaeology history was eclipsed by the outbreak of World War II, and unfortunately his fame was not afforded a mention in this exhibition either: for some reason known only to the curators, provenance and the usual museum notes that accompany artefacts were left off nearly all of the displayed items. Montet is briefly mentioned in the catalogue.


The Tanis treasures made this show, as evidenced by the photos I have included. King Sheshonq II’s falcon headed silver coffin is truly a wonder, although the damaged lower half was apparently deemed unsuitable for travel. The original Gold Of The Pharaohs exhibition which came to Australia in 1988 was meant to include this piece, but it did not.



The exquisite sparrow hawk headed silver coffin of King Shoshenq II, Dynasty 21


Some display cases were so low to the ground that inspecting them meant squatting / crouching down. I was told later that this was an effort to make the displays more child friendly. As there were no children present among the healthy crowd on the day that I attended, I think a mistake was made there.


The separate but accompanying VR ride was a treat and presents fascinating and exciting possibilities for the presentation of Ancient Egyptian antiquities in the virtual world for the future.


Choosing to go with King Ramses II as main draw card for crowds was a curious choice for those of us familiar with the king’s artefact legacy; many of his most well known signature pieces are in situ in Egypt or so large that they can not be moved. His tomb was well plundered in antiquity, so the mask of King Amenemope (again Montet’s find and a  21st Dynasty king) was used on the flyer banners for marketing (see banner poster at the beginning of this review and the actual artefact below).


The mask of King Amenemope, Dynasty 21; this was likely part of a coffin of wood, the organic material having perished in the not so dry conditions of the Nile delta tomb where it was discovered


This is not an unusual ploy: the 2011 King Tutankhamun and The Gold Of The Pharaohs show used a closed up of one of his canopic coffins as the principal marketing image, and the aforementioned Gold Of The Pharaohs show from 1988 did same with a side on view of the mask of King Psusennes (Pasebakhaenniut) I.


It did give at least one Instagram user the notion that she had been featured in an article in a Sydney newspaper on the same page as Ramses’s death mask. (Yes, I corrected her, as I did the Australian Museum when they first ran their advertising for Ramses as “the longest lived pharaoh” – that distinction goes to King Pepi II of the Old Kingdom. They did not thank me but dropped that from the spiel subsequently. If anyone from AM is reading this, you’re welcome).


I had problems with my Ticketek tickets, and this proved frustrating on arrival at the museum. Apparently, the staff were used to this though and sorted it quickly.


The exhibition catalogue is truly wonderful, and the gift shop was good.


Overall show rating: 8.5/10

Curation and atmosphere: 8/10

Ticketing / staff: 7/10


Replica of Sennedjem's tomb of Dynasty 19, complete with his sarcophagus; I have visited the actual tomb in the so called workers valley next to the Valley Of the Kings


The mask of General Wendjedbauendjed who was buried along with the pharaoh he served under in the 21st dynasty

The mask of King Shoshenq II, who was also buried in the silver coffin featured above; pendants and collars from the same burial can be seen in this photo

This bracelet - also belonging to King Shoshenq II - was one of a pair symmetrically matching found on the king's mummy

 

Artefacts In A Spectacular State Of Preservation:

Discovering Ancient Egypt 

National Museum Of Australia, Canberra

December 15, 2023, to September 8, 2024


The atmospherics of Canberra’s contribution to our Ancient Egyptian trifecta of showcases was up a notch from Sydney’s. Upon entry, the façade of a temple complete with projected overlays welcomed you to the space, and set the tone for a truly wondrous collection of antiquities.



As the title to this review suggests, the artefacts presented from the collection of the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden), are among the most majestically preserved that I have encountered. When that museum first attained their collection, they were either given first dibs on some truly well preserved pieces, or they took care to maintain what they acquired better than their contemporaries.


This, along with the lay out of the pieces in one gigantic space, made for an enchanting and compelling museum experience. It was not packed with people when I attended, but I couldn’t imagine it feeling congested owing to the spacious layout and well thought through arrangement of everything. Despite the vastness of the space, the atmosphere was curiously not dissipated!



The highlight would have to be the collection of stunningly preserved coffins and sarcophagi, looking as brilliant in their colouring as though painted yesterday – no mean feat for objects thousands of years old.


Mummy cover of the high priest of Amun, Amenhotep of the 21st Dynasty


A separate room for the display of mummies was included, and this honouring of the dead was respectful and a new, sorely needed requirement for the displaying of human remains in our modern world.


I have included some of the amazing smaller objects in the accompanying photos, but discovering a statue of a bat was a surprise. I have long suspected that there was a bat deity, as they found a mummified one in a box inside the Bent Pyramid. Frustratingly, there appears to be no hieroglyphs telling us Their name.


This late period bronze figure of a bat is considered by Egyptologists as a rebirth totem, but as mentioned above, it may be a statue of an as yet unidentified bat deity


The catalogue for this show was also wonderful, and the gift shop was one of the best I have seen ever for an Ancient Egyptian themed show. If I was flush, I would have bought a lot of gear.


Ticketing was effortless and the staff at the museum were, frankly, the best.


Overall show rating: 9/10

Curation and atmosphere: 10/10

Ticketing / staff: 10/10


Wooden stelae of Hor, who stands before Ausar (Osiris) on the left and Ra Heruakhty on the right. Dynasty 26.


This is a statue of Khaemtir who was part of the workforce responsible for decorating the tomb of King Ramses II; he holds the head of the ram representing the god Amun


A bronze model of an ark from the late period inscribed for one AaMontu, son of Padihor; the god Heru can be seen on top, with Ra behind Him, and other deities in front

 

Sublime Presentation Of Sacred Objects:

Pharaoh

National Gallery Of Victoria, Melbourne

June 14 to October 6, 2024


When I won Mr. Fitness Australia in 2001, I got to compete in Austria. The airline offered a free trip to another European city, so I went to London on the same ticket; here I visited the British Museum where the artefacts featured in this exhibition originate.


I made a beeline for the Egyptian collection of the museum that day, and thankfully so – there was a bomb scare and we were promptly evacuated. I was with a friend who was living there at the time and for whatever reason we never went back inside.


Perhaps that event provided me with a sense of having “already seen” artefacts from the British Museum, and subconsciously I think I took this in with me as I embarked on NGV’s take on the collection.


To say that I was surprised is an understatement, because apart from having some truly spectacular objects that in fact I had not seen before, the curation and presentation of the pieces surpassed even the wonder of the previous two shows.


From a richly carpeted, oddly segmented and sparse entrance hall, to galleries and sections that evoked their own unique flavour as you progressed through the journey of viewing over 500 pieces, Pharaoh gets full points for curation and atmosphere on top of the content itself.


Side profile of the statue head of Djehutimose III, used as the principal image for the exhibition

(see banner advertising the show at front of the NGV at the beginning of this review)


Perhaps because after all NGV is an art gallery and not a museum, and I am after all an artist, my appreciation of this is heightened. I will not easily forget the majesty of the Sekhmet statues displayed as they were against the backdrop of the enormous digital sky wall.



The two photos above consist of an "avenue" of statues of the goddess Sekhmet, most being from the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III, Dynasty 18


Like many of the statues presented in Pharaoh, they were mounted in such a way that crowds did not overwhelm the viewing space and were elevated so that we had to look up respectfully as it were to see the goddesses’ divine face!


Whoever thought of creating the wide plinth bases for the statues – such as the exquisite Seti II piece – is genius.


The pieces set in to the wall were sumptuous, but in some cases difficult to view owing to how they were situated, however. On some pieces, the light for the provenance placards were blocked by the person looking at the next piece on, making them difficult to read.


The rippling light of the jewellery gallery and the chrome textured plinths created another nuanced experience, and the music composed for the exhibition added a pleasing touch. This made me recall David Mauk’s soundtrack for the 2011 Tutankhamun show.


There were ticketing issues and problems with staff directing us incorrectly, leading to our arriving late for a ticketed talk that cost as much as the event itself. We were waiting in the line to get into the actual exhibition – and not the talk - having been told to do so by an attendant; another attendant had no clue whatsoever when we asked her about the ticketed talk and appeared to not understand what I was saying or asking.


I live in Melbourne, so get to see a lot of NGV shows. Their marketing of Pharaoh – accompanying the stellar presentation of the objects themselves – has surpassed itself this time. The treated photo of the head of a statue of Djehutimose III in negative was a great choice as the face of the exhibition.


I have already planned subsequent visits.


Overall show rating: 9.5/10

Curation and atmosphere: 10/10

Ticketing / staff: 4/10


This statue is actually quite small and is part of the wall displayed artefacts; it is the head of King Amenhotep III of Dynasty 18


A ushabti of King Seti I, Dynasty 19; this was one of some truly well preserved ushabtis on display


The artist and author looks at the sarcophagus lid of Pakap - who was overseer of the cultivated lands under the rule of King Apries (Wahibre) of Dynasty 26

photo by Paul Compton


It is a testament to the civilisation of the Pharaohs and to the power of art in all the forms that it takes, that exhibitions such as these command our attention so much, even today.


 

Setken is an artist whose work centres around Kemetic / Ancient Egyptian themes, especially concerning the gods (the Netjeru), and our occult anatomy as understood by the ancients. He lives in Melbourne and is currently finishing a paper and talk for publication on the illustrious tomb built for David and Annabella Syme in Kew Cemetery.

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