Thursday, 28 April 2016

Death on the Nile at the Fitzwilliam: Uncovering the afterlife of ancient Egypt

I visited the Fitzwilliam's 'Death on the Nile' exhibition on a particularly sunny April day - which inadvertently helped to create a sense of entering the netherworld, moving from light into darkness.

The concept of this exhibition was immediately appealing to me: to reconnect ancient anonymous faces on coffins with the craftsmen who made them, and the people who commissioned them. This idea of revealing the people behind the objects is, quite rightly, becoming increasingly popular in museum displays, and helps to create a real sense of context for the visitor. Whether the ancient Egyptians themselves, or modern excavators or scientists, relating to people seems a much more natural approach to such displays, rather than only presenting complex ideas and chronologies which can be much more challenging in a limited space.

On entering the exhibition, the visitor is introduced to ancient Egyptian burial customs, beginning with a reconstructed Predynastic grave with a silhouette of a naturally mummified crouched burial. The subtle lighting throughout is especially effective in this first room, where golden faces from coffins at the exhibition entrance catch the light beautifully.

The exhibition follows a chronological thread, moving into the Middle Kingdom where wooden tomb models are displayed with details of their context and technology. The models from the tomb of Khety at Beni Hasan stand out, which I was especially interested in given the John Garstang connection. Perhaps there would have been an opportunity here to display more of Garstang's archive photography to give a greater sense of context, but this is really an aside as the focus is mainly on the detailed technology of the objects. 

Aside from providing details of individual agency in the creation of these objects, the exhibition uniquely includes a live conservation area, where visitors can get a real sense of the painstaking work that goes into conserving ancient objects. I also enjoyed seeing the experimental objects on display, made by Dr Geoffrey Killen, and the attempts to recreate the ancient coffin technology  based on modern non-invasive analysis of the ancient objects, including data from CT scans. Video footage of craft techniques were also captivating for visitors, including one family who, on watching the videos together, could then more easily explain the father's work as a carpenter to his children.

The exhibition succeeded to reveal the people and stories behind the objects and it was great to see much of the Fitzwilliam's collection on display in a fresh, new context. The fact that no photography was allowed in the exhibition is unfortunate but it was good to see that an exhibition audio guide and comprehensive publication were available, should visitors wish to enhance their visit further.

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Yan Tan Tethera: A rhyme derived from a Brythonic Celtic language used by shepherds to keep sheep in many parts of England and Southern Scotland.

Until the Industrial Revolution, the use of traditional number systems was common among shepherds, especially in the Dales of the Lake District.

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