Arts

An Egyptian extravaganza that costs an arm and a leg

A statue that stood guarding the entrance to the king’s tomb

The Tutankhamun exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery, near London’s Sloane Square, is on its third stop on a 10-country tour. It’s the last time these items will leave Egypt, and in some cases the first.

The familiar face and figure on all the posters is not Tutankhamun’s famous death mask, which is too delicate to travel, but a 15-inch canopic coffinette that once held his liver. The closest we get to seeing the splendour of his coffin is various pieces of jewellery laid on a full-sized model of his mummy case.

Quotations from the Egyptian Book of the Dead feature throughout the exhibition, which focuses on the meaning of the boy-king’s burial items, and on their significance in his journey into immortality. Tutankhamun was only nine when he came to the throne, and one of the most touching exhibits is his child-sized armchair.

The 150 exhibits are labelled well, giving both specific descriptions of each item and background information. What is most astonishing is their beauty, their bright colours, their perfection – their freshness. It’s almost impossible to believe that these artefacts are 3,300 years old.

The exhibition itself is well designed; its presentation at the Saatchi Gallery far less so. (As the Saatchi specialises in works by living artists, one wonders why it is hosting it.) The rooms aren’t connected, and are on three floors. The carefully planned transition of projected sound and vision from one room to the next – the promised “immersive journey” – just doesn’t work when you have to go out to a corridor or up stairs to the next room. The piped New Age muzak in most rooms adds nothing to the experience.

The last and largest piece, which is given a room all to itself, is a quartzite statue of Tutankhamun; projected on the wall is the text “Speak the name of the dead and you make them live again”, implying that archaeologist Howard Carter’s discovery, and this exhibition itself, are “granting the young king the eternal life he so desired”.

I found it an enjoyable exhibition, with three caveats. First, the Saatchi Gallery has a confusing layout, and there is little indication of how to get from one room to the next – not helpful to visitors.

Secondly, museum gift shops are always overpriced, but this one takes it to extremes: £10 for a small flask of Egyptian sand, £16 for a small scarab beetle and an exacting £50 for the exhibition book. This is on top of the widely criticised minimum entry price of £24.50 – or an exorbitant £100 for a family of three at peak periods (including weekends).

The profits will help pay for the eventual home of these exhibits (and many more) in the Grand Egyptian Museum, opening next year in Cairo.

Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh is at the Saatchi Gallery, London, until May 3, 2020