Margaret Maitland, British Museum
In just under two weeks, over 3,000 years of history – in the shape of 130 objects – has been installed at the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle upon Tyne for the British Museum UK touring exhibition Pharaoh: King of Egypt. The objects span almost the entire extent of ancient Egyptian history, from an exquisite ebony label belonging to one of the very first rulers of Egypt to a monument depicting the Roman Emperor Tiberius as an Egyptian pharaoh.
The exhibition focuses on the kings of Egypt, but there is an incredibly diverse selection of objects, which presented a wide range of challenges in the installation. Among the objects is a tiny pendant of King Senusret II that transforms the hieroglyphs which spell out his name into a decorative piece, delicately crafted from gold and colourful semi-precious stones. To display this beautiful piece of jewellery and other small items, the museum assistants handcraft special mounts for each object.
The monumental objects presented the biggest technical challenges, a task for museum assistants Emily Taylor, Simon Prentice, and Emma Lunn. One of the most fascinating objects to install was the massive wooden statue of Ramses I, which would have stood guard protecting an inner chamber in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Towering two metres high, this massive statue has been skilfully conserved but is still fragile, and it was a slow and cautious operation to remove him from his enormous crate, condition check him, and slowly and carefully manoeuvre him into his case.
Ramses’ new home in the exhibition space, designed and built by Tyne & Wear, evokes an Egyptian tomb and temple landscape to convey where many of the objects were found. The exhibition text, created in collaboration between British Museum curator Neal Spencer, Great North Museum manager Sarah Glynn, Tyne & Wear curator Gill Scott, and myself, uses these objects to tell both sides of the story of Egyptian kingship: the powerful image the kings wanted to show their subjects and the rest of the ancient world, and stories they might not have wanted you to hear, about civil wars, palace conspiracies, assassinations, foreign conquerors, and female kings.
On Saturday 16 July, the exhibition opens to the public. It has been an incredible experience working with such a great team and amazing ancient objects and I’m thrilled to think of how many more people will now have the chance to enjoy them.
British Museum Director, Neil McGregor spoke eloquently at the official opening of the importance of this exhibition and others like it in bringing the national collection to people around the UK. Although ancient Egyptian pharaohs preferred to safeguard their power by restricting access to their palaces, temples, and knowledge, this free exhibition will share their splendour through the British Museum collection with audiences all over the country.