British Museum blog

A bit of afterlife admin?

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.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Exhibitions, Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead

6 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Giovanni Meledandri says:

    In the Book a candidate makes his way by proclaiming a formula grossly meaning “.. I am the one who knows..” It is the same formula used in a process of initiation, but now it is.. in the after death. I think it is concerned with the way to increase consciousness: the more conscious, the more in communion with the divine. A sort of guidebook to progress through abstract thought, to create an optimal condition to manipulate.. something. But I think that the Book of Dead is just a fragment of the whole process. I hope to drop soon at the BM to spend some time at the exhibition. Thanks you all.


  2. Barbara A. says:

    Fascinating! I had the opportunity to see the Book of the Dead exhibit a couple of weeks ago. It was easily one of the most beautiful and exhilarating presentations of Egyptian art I’ve seen. It took me back to Egypt. Thank you.


  3. Andy K says:

    Just back from seeing the book of the dead, whilst it was a very interesting and enlightening visit, it was also frustrating to the point of annoyance. Even with booking and staggered entry times there where far to many people allowed in at once, causing dreadful log jams around exhibits. The layout of the exhibits only exacerbated the problem. It does not take much thinking to reason that if you put two exhibits tight into opposite sides of a corner then anyone spending time looking at either one blocks access to the other, very poor.
    Overall I will think twice before coming to any future pay to view exhibits.


  4. Kevin Kelly says:

    Hi there, the exhibition was great, the crowds were not. I went at 3pm on a Wednesday afternoon and I couldn’t move in the crush never mind see the exhibits.

    The same thing happened at the Babylonian exhibition. You seriously need to rethink the arrangements for these and especially for your BM friends.



  5. @ Andy k, Kevin Kelly

    Thanks for taking the time to send us your comments on this temporary exhibition following a recent visit to the Museum.

    I was sorry to hear when you visited the exhibition you felt it was overcrowded. We endeavour to provide everyone with an experience of the objects in both comfort and in safety. As such, we set an optimum capacity for the exhibition (the number of people it can accommodate in the gallery at any one time). This number, usually calculated by the hour, is based on the size of the gallery, the type of exhibition layout and on its provision for emergency egress. We can manage this optimum capacity by using timed tickets.

    I regret that the balance we made on this occasion was not right for you.

    Department of Exhibitions, British Museum


  6. John Gaudet says:

    Very much enjoyed the Book of the Dead exhibition. Wondered what happens now to the 37 meter Greenfield Papyrus? Is it sent on tour? or left in the glass cases elsewhere?


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