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Tis no secret that I love The Ashmolean, its lovely classic facade on Beaumont St and all that smooth white and glass and light on the inside, with an extraordinary collection of riches from around the world. The Ashmolean’s central exhibitions have been getting great press – its recent Cezanne and the Modern was gushed over in all the nationals – and this Discovering Tutankhamun exhibition is having the same effect.
The first thing to say is that you are not going to see original artefacts from the tomb. They are sitting, fragile and immoveable in Cairo. So this exhibition has had to take a slightly different, possibly academic direction, and focuses on the discovery itself – there are fabulous photos from Harry Burton of the exact moment when the door to the tomb is first opened, when Lord Carnarvon, who was funding the dig, asks ‘Can you see anything?’, and the answer comes – ‘Yes, such wonderful things’, along with images of exactly what reached Carter’s eyes in those first seconds.
There are examples of Carter’s original, painstaking drawings – several out of an eventual 8000+ – along with his map of the area, and his understated diary entry as they discover the most outrageous find of the 20th century.
A third room is less esoteric, focusing on the popular culture legacy of Tutankhamun. I hadn’t realised how frenzied the reaction to the discovery had been, but this room shows everything from Tute boardgames, fashion and toys, comics and records, to the scores of excitable newspaper headlines at the time.
The final room is more ‘museumy’, with an exact replica of the famous gold head, assorted statues of Tute and other treasures from the Amarna Period (about 1350–1330 BC) with material from the archives of Oxford’s Griffith Institute.
I really enjoyed it, and though it inevitably lacks some drum-roll moments with the lack of original tomb artefacts, its focus on the discovery and the cultural fall-out (Egyptian’s burgeoning independence wrestling control of the dig and treasures from the UK) was fascinating. Truth be told I’m not sure how engaged my kids would be with it, though to a degree young children just bomb around soaking up visuals, whether they’re in a museum, cinema screen or in the park. I’ll definitely take them to it, but can’t imagine meandering too long in the first two rooms at least.
But but but… the great thing about The Ashmolean is that there’s also so much else to see while you’re there. If you don’t have kids, well, just take your time and enjoy (go have lunch in the rooftop cafe while you’re at it). For those with children, check out the exhibition, and then choose another floor of the museum to visit (the mummies on the ground floor being the obvious one to continue the theme). When you’re all mummied out, you’re only 5 minutes from George St and its ever-increasing Byrons/Jamie’s/Cleaver restaurants, or 5 minutes the other way to University Parks if you want to pick up a sandwich on St Aldgates and sit out in the sunshine.
And as ever, let me know what you think of the exhibition, so we can all benefit from your wisdom!
Tutankhamen Discovered runs until 2 November. www.ashmolean.org.
£10 tickets, £8 concessions, under 12s go free.