Pharaoh fever: The museum blockbuster coming to a city near you

Pharaoh fever: The museum blockbuster coming to a city near you

By Linda Morris

Three Ancient Egyptian blockbuster exhibitions will soon hit Australia.

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It was comedian Steve Martin who first mined laughs at the expense of the museum antiquity blockbuster 45 years ago.

Then a Saturday Night Live regular, Martin dressed as King Tutankhamun to send up a travelling exhibition of pharaonic treasures making a six-city, 2½-year tour across the United States.

As Americans queued for hours for a look-see, Martin mocked the sale of trinkets, toys, posters, and T-shirts while thanking the boy king for giving his life for tourism.

The roadshow that Martin skewered, Treasures of Tutankhamun, is widely regarded as the first of the modern-day blockbuster – those packaged exhibitions with mass appeal and a souvenir shop at the exit.

The Gold Gilded mask from the coffin of Pharaoh Amenemope is installed at the Australian Museum.Credit: Steven Siewert

It’s the granddaddy of three international treasure shows opening across Australian east coast capital cities from November 18.

The Australian Museum kicks off the year of ancient Egyptian mania with Ramses and the Gold of the Pharaohs, endorsed by the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. At the launch on Friday, the Australian Museum announced that it had pre-sold 100,000 tickets for its new blockbuster, an unprecedented public response.

The Egyptian head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Dr Mostafa predicted a million visitors by the show’s end, an attendance record for the museum.

A month later, the National Museum of Australia opens Discovering Ancient Egypt, an exhibition of more than 220 objects from the Rijksmuseum Van Oudheden (National Museum of Antiquities) in the Netherlands – one of the finest collections of Egyptian antiquities outside of Egypt.

And come June, the British Museum is making its most ambitious international loan of ancient Egyptian artefacts to the National Gallery of Victoria.

Ramses II’s coffin will be making the journey to Australia for a blockbuster exhibition about one of ancient Egypt’s greatest Pharaohs.

The arrival of these three shows in quick succession is mostly a consequence of the havoc wrought by COVID-19 which sidelined global museum loans for two years and disrupted museum schedules. Despite the competition, one million people are expected to visit the treasure shows.

“These things do happen,” NGV’s senior curator of international programs, Miranda Wallace, says of the rush. “It’s like buses: there’s nothing for ages, then three come along.”

Beyond Tutankhamun

The world’s obsession with the ancient Egyptians began with Napoleon’s military campaign in Egypt and kicked off again with British archaeologist Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of the royal tomb of Tutankhamun.

Egyptology is now deeply enmeshed in popular culture and mythology: the gold, precious gems, secret burial chambers, coded script, treasure hunters and the ancients’ quest for immortality play into almost every storybook fantasy and Hollywood film trope.

The rock-cut temple of Abu Simbel.

Australian Museum chief executive Kim McKay first observed the audience pulling power of Ancient Egypt while working at National Geographic as a senior vice president.

“It’s that human interest, that curiosity to go back in time,” she says. “It’s the same level of curiosity an adventurer might have exploring a new ocean or a new shore, a new country.”

Five years ago, the Australian Museum received a $57.5 million renovation to cope with the nine visitors every minute it was expecting to rush to an upcoming Tutankhamun blockbuster.

At the height of the pandemic in 2020, the Egyptian government recalled the show, and in Ramses & the Gold of the Pharaohs, McKay says the museum has found a superior replacement.

Ramses is a cut above Tutankhamun,” says McKay. “Ramses II is a much more intriguing figure. He stayed on the throne for 67 years, and he’s called Ramses the Great because of his military conquests and the many monuments he erected in his own honour. That man certainly had a healthy ego. He fathered 100 children and was an incredible individual in his own right.”

Ramses boasts all the bells and whistles Australia has come to expect of an imported blockbuster, setting a high value on exclusivity and the rare display of the sarcophagus of Ramses II, its star attraction.

This show comes to Sydney from Paris, the fourth stop on a 10-city international tour packaged by promoters World Heritage Exhibitions and Neon Global, creators of the Jurassic World: The Exhibition at Olympic Park.

A bust of Ramses the Great.

Ramses leans heavily on digital technology to tell the story of the pharaoh’s reign including a virtual reality tour of two of Ramses’ most impressive monuments: the rock-cut temples of Abu Simbel and the Tomb of Queen Nefertari, Ramses’s favourite royal consort.

In cinematic motion chairs, visitors will fly through sandstorms and the 1275BC Battle of Kadesh – Ramses’ greatest military achievement – to come face to face with Ramses’ mummy.

This is the nature of the blockbusters for an audience with two feet in the internet age, says McKay. They are fun, entertaining and educational.

In Paris, where Ramses has spent the past five months, the exhibition drew more than 820,000 people.

In Sydney, the Australian Museum has predicted one million visitors, more than the 800,000 expected for Tutankhamun and more than the 323,300 who rushed the country’s first Egyptian blockbuster at the Art Gallery of NSW in 1988.

The modern antiquity blockbuster is designed for such mass appeal – to drive people through the doors of the museum who are not the regular gallery crowd.

Some of the treasures that will be heading to the NGV.

“Costs are going up everywhere, as we know,” McKay says. “It’s an unusual government that keeps throwing money at you, so we have to be more entrepreneurial to generate more income. The more people we get in who see these facilities, see our exhibitions, eat at our café, buy something at the shop, the better programs and facilities – all these things add up over time.”

It’s a big reason why the NGV in Melbourne has shifted pace from its usual painterly offerings of 19th and 20th century masters for its first deep dive into the world of ancient Egyptian rulers as part of the Winter Masterpieces series.

“We want to bring new people into the gallery to introduce them to art and the gallery as a place to visit multiple times and to learn about artistic and creative expression,” says Wallace, the gallery’s senior curator of international programs. “It’s only part of a diverse exhibition program, but it’s an important part.”

Walk Like an Egyptian

Public accessibility to rare antiquities is built heavily into the promotional material of all three shows, notes Dr Chiara O’Reilly, the director of museum and heritage studies at the University of Sydney.

Australia’s great distance from Europe left a deep imprint on the country’s cultural psyche. As far back as the first world fairs and international expositions, audiences have been drawn to large-scale exhibitions promoted as once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to view international collections, O’Reilly says.

Shabti of Seti I will be at the NGV next year.

The first modern-day blockbusters were managed by museums in multiple cities. Sometime in the early 2000s, as Sydney and Melbourne’s cultural rivalry took off, these exhibitions became one-city events with their success tied to tourism outcomes.

“That’s where you start getting packages sold with accommodation and tickets to the exhibition,” says Dr Anna Lawrenson, director of art curating at the University of Sydney and O’Reilly’s co-author of The Rise of the Must-See Exhibition: Blockbusters in Australian Museums and Galleries. “You start seeing targeted advertising to draw interstate visitors.”

For audiences, physical and intellectual distances are compressed when an exhibition is imported into Australia, O’Reilly and Lawrenson say.

The sculptured fist of Ramses coming to the NGV in June. Credit: Eugene Hyland

Such is the case with Pharaoh, an exhibition that will encompass the entire ground floor of the NGV. The scale of objects on loan from the London institution ranges from a few centimetres wide to monumental architectural installations and restored sculptures, many not seen in Australia before.

Eschewing CGI wizardly entirely, NGV will delve into the artistic legacy of the pharaohs and how these kings used visual language to perpetuate their power over 3000 years.

“The art exhibition is a unique space,” Wallace says. “We have a lot of faith in these ancient objects’ power to reach audiences without extensive digital exegesis.”

Among the highlights will be a reassembled limestone wall from an Old Kingdom mastaba tomb carved with hieroglyphic texts, and a 1.5-tonne fist of Ramses II, a fragment of a colossal statue designed to convey the pharaoh’s power.

Amenhotep III, for example, was particularly fixated on the lion-headed goddess, Sekhmet, a mercurial deity inclined to introduce pestilence and plague if not appeased. Ten monumental sculptures of her image will be brought to Melbourne, some of which required detailed repair before crossing the globe.

“It’s going to be a very dramatic moment to see them all together,” says Wallace. “The pharaoh actually commissioned 365 sculptures of her seated and 365 of her standing for his mortuary temple. Mentally, you can imagine a courtyard filled with 700 of these sculptures.”

Here come the mummies

The National Museum’s Discovering Ancient Egypt is alone among the three shows to boast a dedicated room of mummified people and animals.

Five mummies, including that of a man named Haremem and a young woman named Sensaos, will be displayed in a solemn space that comes with audience warnings and careful assurances of the mummies’ care and custodianship.

The mummified bodies lie in their original linen bandages. The Dutch museum’s founding director understood the irreversible damage unwrapping might cause and waited on technological advances to research the mummified remains.

Stone tablet, Stela of Pamaaf.Credit: Rijksmuseum van Oudheden

The results of the CT scans are shared via a digital interactive, side by side with extracts from the Book of the Dead scrolls, art, jewellery and sculpture, household pottery, and an ancient board game.

Most of the objects on loan from the Netherlands came into that museum’s collection within the last 200 years, including the coffin of a wealthy woman from a priestly family, which is filled with spells and formulae, and depictions of many gods.

“Inside [the exhibition] is this extraordinary recreated theatre of the ancient world on the banks of the Nile with enormous sarcophagi, mummified people and animals including a falcon, a crocodile, a snake, cat and fish,” says NMA’s director Mathew Trinca. “It’s going to be stunning.”

Discovering Ancient Egypt comes to Canberra via the Western Australian Museum. It will stay for eight months before heading to Queensland.

Under such a partnership, exhibition fees, program material, freight, and insurance, amounting to many millions of dollars, are shared. Adult tickets are priced at $25, compared to Ramses’ $45 (not including the VR experience) and NGV’s $38, making it the cheapest of all three shows.

A mummified falcon dating back to 30 BCE–395 CE.Credit: Rijksmuseum van Oudheden

“I think about the contemporary museum as being essentially a deeply democratic place that welcomes all comers,” Trinca says.

“And if you believe in that, by extension, then it must be that you want to see the greatest number of people have the opportunity to see these extraordinary objects that are drawn from the common element of humanity.”

One day, Wallace believes these kinds of imported exhibitions will become too prohibitively expensive to freight and insure: “Not in the next 10 years, but certainly in the next 50 years.”

The arrival of all three shows, however, will test the strength of museum audiences post-pandemic. Will audiences return to the museums after the antiquity shows have left? “That’s the question,” O’Reilly says.

But Trinca, who ultimately believes the blockbuster needs to return to its multi-city roots to become a more democratic and shared experience, says: “Ever since the declaration of the blockbuster, we’ve been predicting its death. I don’t agree.

“As we increasingly feel the press of fakery around us online everywhere, these extraordinary collections speak of human experience from an authentic place.

“These are things that are entries to understanding the lives of others, thousands of years ago in this case, and I think there will always be a fascination with seeing that object and being in communion with it in an exhibition hall.”

Ramses and the Gold of the Pharaohs, Australian Museum, Sydney, November 18 to May 19.

Discovering Ancient Egypt, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, December 15 to September 8.

, NGV International, Victoria, June 14 to October 6.

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