I’ve been longing to see the treasures of Tutankhamun since 1972, when I was deemed too young to go to the British Museum exhibition. That was a massive sell-out show; I remember seeing the queues and wishing I was whiling away my time in them, though I’m sure I would have been as bored and grumpy as any other small child.
When there was an exhibition at the o2 in 2007, I was first in line. And, unfortunately, it really wasn’t that good. Instead of that lifesize death mask, the blue and gold miracle framing the most beautiful boy’s face that we all think of when we imagine Tutankhamun, the exhibition could only manage a tiny canopic jar version of that splendour. I felt cheated, not least as I’d dragged four children to see it all at vast expense, remembering my own long-ago chagrin.
So I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, when I went to the Saatchi exhibition last week. But phew, it was really good. There still wasn’t the centrepiece death mask (even though it appears on the posters) and there was the substitute tiny little canopic jar again. BUT there was so much more, so many beauties on display, many of which had never left Egypt before. I truly felt I was in rooms with the most wonderful creations humanity has ever produced. How did they achieve those perfect marquetry work hieroglyphs? How could they emboss and engrave gold to tell such wonderful stories? How could anyone carve stone and glass into such amazing shapes? And these artefacts are three thousand years old. It makes you blush for the shoddiness of our world right now.
There were two very good films, introducing the exhibition. Both were fairly dramatic, but they did get the blood pumping and set the tone for the magical treasures in store. The first cleverly got round any guilt or distaste we might feel at violating the privacy of the dead – the ancient Egyptians believed that the soul lives as long as your name is spoken. As Tutankhamun’s name had been erased everywhere by his successor, Howard Carter 30-odd centuries later actually did the king a favour, bringing his name to light again and ensuring it will be spoken forever.
There were bits of information I hadn’t heard before – the fun fact that King Tut had the faces of his enemies drawn on the soles of his shoes, so he could grind them into the dust. And the distinctly tragic fact that his two stillborn daughters were mummified in his coffin with him.
The only let down, and it was a big one, was the shop. After admiring such amazing things, I was ready to spend money on some loot of my own, a little souvenir of King Tut to take home. A fridge magnet, a postcard… something. But they were all horrible. Maybe the contrast was too great, between the incredible works inside the exhibition and the over-priced tat on offer. But the British Museum constantly stocks some rather good Egyptian stuff in its shop, nice mummy-shaped pencil cases and elegant cats. And I remember my grandmother getting me a rather fab scarab brooch from the 1972 show.
Nothing tempted us this time, so I will console myself with visions of ineffable golden beauty, which will make the best souvenir in the end.