John Taylor, British Museum
It’s now just over one month since the Book of the Dead exhibition opened to the public – the culmination of a number of years work. So it’s greatly satisfying to see it full of people at last.
We’ve always been aware that here at the British Museum we have one of the best collections of books of the dead in the world, but usually we can only display a small proportion of them. So we’ve always wanted to find an opportunity to display a larger selection of them and also explain what they are. If you look at the Egyptian galleries here you will see references to Books of the Dead, you’ll see parts of them, but we have never been able to focus so closely on them and really explain how they work.
Seeing the objects in place is really exciting. You think you can get a sense of what it will look like but when you see the installation in the space for the first time it can be a real revelation, especially as plans change so much over the course of the development.
One of the problems we faced was that there are so many stories you can tell about the books of the dead, but you can’t explain them all. Originally I had a plan that there would be two main threads to the exhibition: a narrative that would follow an Egyptian on his way from death to afterlife, and then another thread all about the history of the Book of the Dead – how it evolved over time, how it was made, and the scribes who wrote the manuscripts.
In the end we focussed on the narrative of the journey to the afterlife because we thought that would be the most accessible way of presenting the Book of the Dead. This way visitors can identify with one Egyptian and find out which spells he needed on the way as different situations arose.
One of the things we’d love to know more about is how the ancient Egyptians imagined the Book of the Dead would be used. Did they think the dead would unroll this document and read it? Or was it more just the fact of having it there in the tomb that magically conveyed the spells to you?
It’s probably more likely to be the second option because some of the spells couldn’t be read as they’re so full of nonsense! (either the scribe couldn’t read them or he was copying from a defective original).
Perhaps there was a box-ticking mentality going on here: you should have one of these in your tomb so you get it and it doesn’t really matter if it’s completely accurate or not. You’ve got it, it’s there, it’s in the tomb, and it has got the right spells on it. It’s a part of the burial kit you must have.