Thursday, July 26, 2012

We Go to See the Pharaoh

So, yesterday we celebrated our anniversary by taking the day off and heading down to the Pacific Science Center (part of the 1962 World's Fair complex, a little north and west of the base of the Space Needle). We've been there once before, a few years back, to see Lucy*; seems we only go there to see really old corpses.

We'd planned to see the Imax film about the pharaohs, then take in the exhibition, but traffic was bad, so that we arrived after the film's start time. Not to worry; the good folks there shifted our times around so we cd go into the Tut exhibit at 12 rather than 12.30 and the film afterwards, starting at 2.30.

Just before going into the exhibit we all watched a short film narrated by Harrison Ford, famous for playing an old tomb robber (which, given what we were about to see, seemed wholly appropriate). Then it was into the exhibit itself. Janice and I had given a pass on the audio tour with headphones; recently we've noticed how it seduces you into a rhythm: pause in front of item, listen to audiotrack, move to next time, repeat. We had a much better experience wandering around, looking at the items in whatever order made sense at the time.

One of the great things about this exhibit, paradoxically, is that there aren't too many items on display. That's not to say there weren't a lot, but that they weren't all crowded together. Instead, the statues were out in the open, surrounded by don't-cross-this-line cords that nonetheless let you get pretty close (a great help, when you're eyesight's not what it could be). Even better, you could walk all the way around almost every item on exhibit, which meant you could compare profiles of statues, see what was carved on the back of a stele, &c.

My favorite item, by far, was a colossal statue of Akhenaten; the bottom half was missing, but they'd mounted it high enough so the king's long, narrow face looked down on us from the appropriate height. Don't think I've ever seen any of the Amarna revolution art in person before, and it was breathtaking. My next favorite, predictably enough, was the decorated stone box containing the remains of Prince Thutmose (Akhenaten's older brother)'s cat. There were three depictions of the cat itself, one in mummified form, and another of it facing a little table piled with nom (including what looks like a whole duck -- this was apparently one well-fed cat). I'm certain the cat's name must be carved among all the hieroglyphs running up and down the box, but no translation was provided, either in the signage nor on the postcard or souvenir book.**

There were many, many other wonderful things to see -- such as a statue of Khafre, builder of the second Great Pyramid of Giza and also, perhaps even more significant, of the Sphinx, which he had carved with his own features -- thus looking at this statue is a great way to see how the Sphinx originally looked, before forty-five centuries or so of wear and tear had their way with it. Side by side with this statue was one of his son Menkaure, builder of the third (and smallest) pyramid of the three. I looked around for one of Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid itself, but didn't find one -- then remembered that only a single image of him survives, a little statuette a few inches high, and no doubt far too precious to go out on the road like this.

Another striking item was a head of an Amarna princess with a bizarrely elongated skull. That this was clearly deliberate was shown by another piece in the next room that showed a charioteer with the same mis-shapened skull. Was this the result of deliberate manipulation of infant's skulls to produce a desired effect, as is still done in some countries in the world today, or an artistic effect, or what? V. odd.

Wandering around an exhibit like this, I was v. much struck by how little distance separates us from the people of pharaonic times: the bed, the chair, the sandals, the pretty little gold cup. Things that initially seem odd on second thought aren't that different at all -- for example, there was a statue of one princess who became became a priestess and was said to have married the god: I've known nuns in my time, who undergo a ceremony to become Brides of Christ. The uncomfortable side of this is that while it's all well and good to move statues around, you can't enter the final rooms of the exhibit -- the ones dedicated to Tutankhamun himself -- without being aware you're surrounded by things looted from a tomb. The unwrapped mummy at the very end of the exhibit is an exact replica of the real thing, which is thankfully still in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings -- but I cdn't look at it without thinking of the flowers (not mentioned here) his widow and friends and family strewed on the real mummy before closing the innermost coffin for the last time. Putting a flower in the coffin when saying farewell to a loved one: something people still do today.

All in all, a wonderful exhibit; one of the most visitor-friendly and satisfying I've ever been to. That makes the second Egyptian museum visit of the year, the first having been to the Carnegie when we were in Pittsburgh last month. That display was mainly pots (many of them pre-dynastic) and tools and jewelry, plus a few late-era mummies in mummy-cases near the end. So that collection was focused more towards relatively ordinary people, while the Tut exhibit was pharaohs and family and nobles.

Next up will be the British Museum and the Flinders Petrie (which turns out not to be in Oxford at all, as I'd thought, but at University College London -- not that far from where we'll be staying, fact.***

After that, we moseyed over to the Imax (only the third Imax film I've ever seen, with one of the other two having been on my only previous visit to the Pacific Science Center) -- this one focused more on the royal mummy cache than Tutankhamun; it was distinguished mainly by being narrated by Christopher Lee and by the actress playing Nefertiti being able to walk slinkily in desert sand. That, and one sequence where it showed the face of pharaoh after pharoah and then immediately cut to the temple or monuments or complex that particularly king had constructed.

A short snack later, and we were off to get stuck in traffic (fifty minutes to get from the parking garage to the interstate, which isn't really that far (maybe a mile or so). A short rest, and then meeting up with friends for a quiet, enjoyable meal in view of the sun setting over the Sound. V. nice!

So, if you're at all interested in Ancient Egypt and live in or will be passing through the Seattle area, this exhibit is well worth visiting. Esp. considering how rarely material like this leaves Egpyt. The official name of the exhibit is "TUTANKHAMUN: THE GOLDEN KING AND THE GREAT PHARAOHS", and it's scheduled to stay at in Seattle until January 2013.

And now we're even toying with the idea of revisiting the Field Museum's ancient Egypt display -- probably the single one we're most familiar with, from earlier visits back when we used to live in Wisconsin -- when we're back in the area for my talk at Marquette in October. That'd be five Egyptian exhibits in one year, which sounds pretty good to me. We'll see what we can manage when the time comes.

--John R.

*with Janice's friend Patty, owner of Henry, himself the subject of a previous post.

**I was right: the cat's name was Ta-Miaut ("The She-Cat"); apparently Prince Thutmose was the literal sort. Here's a link to a site showing the cat's box from all directions; the only thing you miss from this is the rich yellow-brown gold color of the box itself. For that, take a look at the second link below as well and scroll down to the bottom of the first page:

***while we're there, I'll have to go by and pay my respects to Jeremy Bentham, if he's still in his glass box (as he was when I was there in '81).

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