British Museum's historic Pharaoh exhibition arrives in Bristol
David Clensy gets a sneak preview of the British Museum’s Pharaoh: King of Egypt exhibition, which opens at Bristol Museum this weekend
When it comes to bouncers, there are few with the poise and presence of Ramesses II.
A larger than life-size bust of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh looms towards you from the moment you step inside the latest exhibition to arrive at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
He may be only made of granite, but with his unblinking stare looking straight at you, it’s difficult not to be slightly intimidated.
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As I arrive though, the royal figure is surrounded by a flurry of activity – as experts from the British Museum scurry around the room, delicately unpacking priceless ancient artifacts from enormous metal cases – each stamped boldly with the word “FRAGILE”.
The national touring exhibition is the largest UK loan of Egyptian artifacts ever undertaken by the British Museum, and despite the £5 entrance fee, staff at Bristol Museum are confident that the show is likely to be popular.
“We are predicting 45,000 visitors over the 12 weeks,” says Sue Giles, senior collections officer for museum. “Ancient Egypt is always an incredibly popular subject – we’re all fascinated by the world of the pharaohs, and of course ancient Egypt is still a major part of every child’s history syllabus at school.
“It’s wonderful for us to be able to host these historic items here in Bristol, because the artifacts from the British Museum collection complement our own Egyptian collection wonderfully.
“But as you might expect, the items from the British Museum are some of the finest pieces. Our resident collection is mostly bronze and pottery, and relates to day-to-day life for ordinary ancient Egyptians. But the majority of these items are gold and silver, and relate directly to the lives of the highest status people in Egyptian life – the royal pharaohs.”
The exhibition explores the lives of the pharaohs and their role as head of state, high priest and army commanders through objects spanning more than 3,000 years of history.
Visitors will be able to examine everything from monumental statues, beautifully carved stone reliefs from ancient temples, papyri and glittering gold jewellery.
The exhibition also features more unusual objects, including the colourful inlays used to decorate a pharaoh’s palace, diplomatic letters to Egypt’s allies, inscribed on clay
tablets, the wooden bow of one of the king’s troop commanders, and an ancient water-clock decorated for a Greek king on the throne of Egypt.
There is also a 3,000-year-old wooden bed, and more incredible still, a 2,500-year-old loaf of bread. It looks slightly stale.
Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, says: ‘This exhibition is a fantastic example of collaboration between the British Museum and its partners across the UK having been seen by more than 270,000 people in venues across the country.
“This is the largest ever loan of Egyptian artifacts by the British Museum and also the largest partnership tour.”
Bristol is the sixth and final destination for the tour – and as most of the items are normally housed in storage at the British Museum, this could be your last chance to see some of these objects for decades.
Mark Haswell, assistant curator with the British Museum, tells me that four fifths of the British Museum’s collection is in near-permanent storage, with only a small fraction on display in London.
“The sheer quantity of items in the museum’s collection mean it’s impossible to display anything more than a fifth of the items we care for,” he tells me, as he takes a brief break from unloading the priceless items.
“So it’s always nice to be part of a tour like this, where we are able to take largely unseen items to museums across the country, so people get the opportunity to see them.”
Julie Finch, director of Bristol museums, galleries and archives, says: “We are delighted that Bristol visitors will have the opportunity to see these stunning items from the British Museum. The museum will be supporting the exhibition with some of its own collections, including the wonderful Belzoni Egyptian watercolours.
“Behind the scenes, staff from across the museum have been brushing up on their learning skills and delving into the history of ancient Egypt to become what we are calling ‘walking wikis’. Our walking wiki’s will be able to share what they have learnt with visitors and we hope, become a lively and engaging part of the visitor experience.”
The exhibition will be accompanied by a programme of events and activities. Highlights include a rare screening of the silent classic The Loves of Pharaoh with live musical accompaniment on the harp on Friday, March 22, 8pm.
The Museum will also be teaming up with renowned artist Gavin Turk for Museums at Night (May 16) to create a “magic carpet experience” created through story-telling, conversation and visitor participation linking ancient and modern Egyptian worlds.
Pharaoh: King of Egypt, runs at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, Queen’s Road, Clifton, from Saturday (March 16) until July 21. Admission is £5 for adults, £4 concessions, £3 children under 16.