What is it about ancient Egypt that holds such enduring fascination? The word Pharaoh itself – from Egyptian pr-’o, meaning great house – conjures images of immeasurable wealth: gold and silver, towering monuments, bejewelled sarcophagi. But surely there is more to the epoch’s allure than the loot?
The National Gallery of Victoria’s 2024 Winter Masterpieces blockbuster exhibition, Pharaoh – announced on Wednesday and opening next June – will showcase more than 500 individual pieces from the British Museum’s permanent collection, exclusive to Melbourne, in the largest international loan the London institution has ever undertaken.
The exhibition hopes to expand our knowledge of the ancient culture, to see beyond the shimmering glamour and godlike royal lineages.
The announcement comes as the Australian Museum in Sydney prepares in November to launch Ramses and the Gold of the Pharaohs, an unrelated exhibition featuring 181 “priceless artefacts” from the reign of Ramses II.
Part of Egypt’s enduring attraction is its sheer archeological bounty. This is due to the nature of its preservation, explains the British Museum’s international touring exhibitions curator, Dr Marie Vandenbeusch, who is helping put the NGV show together.
“It’s very dry land [in Egypt] and quite a lot of the tombs were buried in the desert. This gives us access to the bodies of ancient people, but also furniture, clothing and food. You have monumental architecture and of course, you have writing. It gives us a unique perspective.”
It is, however, a skewed, top-down view of the civilisation. These stunning burial treasures were reserved for the richest members of society, including its royal families; most of the artefacts only reflect the culture’s elite. What of the artisans and craftspeople who actually made these objects? What of ordinary ancient Egyptian life?
Vandenbeusch believes Egyptology is undergoing a transformation or evolution in this space. “We’re refining our understanding of that layer of the population, trying to understand what they believed and their connection to all those objects,” she says. The exhibition includes fragments of everyday life found in the village of Deir el-Medina, where craftspeople lived while working in the Valley of the Kings.
Of course, the treasure – all that bygone bling, from the carved green siltstone head of Thutmose III to the quartzite seated statue of Sety II, grandson of Ramses II – remains the key drawcard. That such artistry could be perfected thousands of years before the birth of Christ and marvelled at all these millennia later touches something in us. It might be the detritus of a fallen civilisation, but it connects us to the beauty and grandeur of human expression.
The objects are also far more than virtuosic status markers for the rich and famous. There is a charged spiritual dimension to them, says Vandenbeusch. One piece in particular, “a small statue of Amun-Ra in gilded silver, found buried in the temple of Karnak near modern-day Luxor”, was believed to be the incarnation of the god. “All the offerings and rituals were made for that statue, and it was buried in sacred ground,” she says. To this day, Vandenbeusch finds it “quite magical. It’s as if the god is still living in this statue.”
Pharaoh will encompass the entire ground floor of the NGV; it features massive architecture and sculpture, including a reassembled limestone wall from an Old Kingdom mastaba tomb carved with hieroglyphic texts, and a 1.5-tonne 1.5m-wide fist of Ramses II, a fragment of a colossal statue designed to convey the pharaoh’s immensity and power.
The exhibition has been a long time coming. “The process started many years ago,” Vandenbeusch says. Much of the work focused on conservation of objects, getting them to a state that could endure transportation across the globe.
While it’s a boon for Australian audiences, it means the exhibition will land just as the arguments around provenance and repatriation heat up. Should the British Museum even have these objects in the first place?
“We’re a museum with a lot of archaeological material, and a lot of discussion is happening [with colleagues in Egypt] and will need to continue to happen,” Vandenbeusch says.
She stresses there “are no contested pieces in this exhibition” but grants that institutions such as the British Museum and NGV – the “great houses” of today, holding on to their spoils – may just have a reckoning coming. Nothing, not even the grandest civilisation, lasts forever.
• Pharaoh, the Winter Masterpieces exhibition, runs 14 June to 6 October 2024 at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne