Fake or Facsimile: Part 4: Replicate & Situate

If you have been engaged with any of the arguments presented in Fake or Facsimile so far, you will already know, from Part III (“King Tut’s Golden Mask”), of my enthusiasm for the 1,200 Tutankhamun replica artifacts that have been manufactured for the travelling European exhibition (TGS) of these Egyptian New Kingdom treasures.  I have already detailed some of the advantages that such an “artificial” exhibition makes possible: flexibility of exhibition space and hours; flexibility of groupings and display areas; and a capacity for coping with the desire for photography—even flash—which cannot do any damage to these “artifacts” whatsoever.  But this is just a preamble to the huge opportunities this kind of exhibition can begin to exploit.

Immediately, we note that—since these “artifacts” are all already replicas—there is no reason not to continue replicating them, even within the same exhibition space.  By this means the same “artifact” can be viewed both in context, and then also studied closely and separately.  For instance, when the visitor first enters TGS, one has the thrill of seeing all the articles deposited in the Antechamber of Tutankhamun’s Tomb, gathered together and placed in display, in an approximation of Howard Carter’s first discovery of them.[i]  Only after seeing everything tightly packed together, and even in a jumble, does one see everything laid out, spaciously and separately, so that each of these highest-quality replicas is displayed to its best advantage.

The untidiness of the Antechamber (in TGS) is then contrasted with a full-scale reproduction of the young Pharaoh’s Burial Chamber, which at one time contained those famous priceless funereal treasures, including the Pharaoh’s mask.  It is hard to credit that so much wealth could have been inserted into such a compact (even awkward) space; seen in this way, Carter’s subsequent unsealing (and unboxing) of all Tutankhamun’s burial “containers” is that much more awe-inspiring and dramatic.

It is not wrong to speak of the most sophisticated imaginable “stage-craft” being employed here.  This extremely tight chamber[ii] was fully exploited in Antiquity by placing the mummified Tutankhamun within majestic (and protective) layer after layer, as Mey Zaki explains, “to assure the deceased’s rebirth”.[iii]  The deified Pharaoh was secured for his journey to the West by the most exquisite stockpile of “nesting dolls” that have survived from Egypt’s Valley of the Kings.

The protective “layers” within which Tutankhamun’s mummy was encased defy the imagination.  Proceeding from outer to inner, we have four (gilded) wooden shrines, a rose-coloured quartzite sarcophagus (still in situ in KV62, as Tutankhamum’s tomb is identified), and three coffins[iv] (the last of which is manufactured from “solid gold”[v]).  Since the cedar panels of the first of these four shrines had dimensions of: Length: 5.08m, Width 3.28, and Height 2.75m,[vi] the space within which all these treasures had been contained apparently left only about 66cm of space at the back of the chamber and a meager 43cm on either side of the outermost shrine.[vii]   The theory is that all the shrines’ wooden panels were stacked against the walls of the burial chamber first, and then assembled from inner to outer.[viii]  In this way, the Pharaoh’s remains were contained in eight separate “envelopes”: first the three coffins, then the sarcophagus, and finally the four “nesting” shrines.  This, one hoped, would secure Tutankhuman’s safe passage into the afterlife.

Each of these four shrines is on display at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, but they are encased in protective glass—and given the predicted imminent departure of the shrines to Giza’s Grand Egyptian Museum, I do not expect that the glass cases safeguarding the individual shrines will get any of the thorough cleaning they need before the shrines’ permanent removal.

Please remember that the Pharaoh’s magnificent quartzite sarcophagus remains in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings, while the shrines that encased the sarcophagus are in Cairo.  No problem at all for TGS: since we are dealing with replicas, we are not in any way inhibited by disparate locations.  One proceeds from a reproduction of the burial chamber, complete with the chamber’s painted walls, by way of the four shrines (inside and out), and on to the coffins, and finally to the golden burial mask, one of the best known icons in the world.

As I have asserted before, the fact that TGS can find its own spaces suited to its exhibits means that everything can be laid out twice, first in context and then individually.  But the most superior attribute of such an organization is that the viewer is offered, as it were, a parade or a procession, from outer to inner, from extensive to modest, from monumental to diminutive—and one can also, if one wishes, always reverse the order.  In TGS, because the space suits the exhibition, and not vice versa, the progression of the individual items can then proceed sequentially from outer to inner, and then, if you are so inclined, you can retrace your steps from inner to outer.  And by this means the exquisite and delicate is not immediately trumped by the colossal and monumental. 

Each item on display has its own particular place in the “rolling out” of the exhibits, and each replica can be appreciated in itself and for itself, without issues of dimension and size disturbing the artisanship of any particular item; a cramped museum display, in my opinion, immediately emphasizes eye-catching size over intricacies of detail.  Tutankhamun’s tomb is, as it were, a single volume: here we have the privilege of seeing everything as bound up and preserved, and then having a careful look at each page in an unfolding book.

And so at the end of a long and logical ceremonial procession through the contents of the burial chamber—a benefit not possible in the congested displays of the Cairo Museum—we come at last to the famous golden mask of Egypt’s true “boy wonder”; but again we have the privilege of seeing the same mask twice.  We are offered a display of the Pharaoh’s (still occupied) open coffin, with mirrors underneath the bottom portion, so that everything is present to us.  Here, we see the mask, in place, and later we shall see all the choice items the final coffin was able to safeguard, after they have been yanked from their context.  Then only do we proceed to examining the golden funeral mask from 360 degrees, and so are able to enjoy all the elaborate detail that the mask offers up, front and back.  Not either or, but both and.

Obviously, everyone who goes to Cairo knows to zero in on Tutankhamen’s death mask, but here in TGS, the “solid gold” inner coffin, the Pharaoh’s jewelry, the throne, his exquisite child’s seat, the maces, trumpets, canopic jars, and various cabinets—every piece of this meticulously crafted  furniture is allowed to have its moment in the spotlight.  Previously, I have mentioned the golden nails removed from KV62, that the NY Met has graciously repatriated at Egypt’s request.[x]  A nail, I would suggest, would normally be swallowed up in a display of 1,200 Tutankhamun artefacts, but these humble nails grouped together, and given enough “breathing room” away from flashier exhibits, even these golden nails can work their opulent magic—at least for me.

This is a perfect illustration of the interplay between universal and particular, between broad brush and detail, between monumental and diminutive, and shows how one supports the other; if we concentrate only on the trappings, we lose sight of the stupendous engineering achievements that we so admire in the ancient Egyptians; if we are overwhelmed by the monumental and massive, then we have no sense of the individual possessions and the everyday utensils that bind us to these ancient forebears, who were also human beings.  The only way to do justice to this procession is to proceed from the chamber and its outer shrine to the Pharaoh’s mask, and then to retrace your steps from mask back to the outer shrine which was its ultimate envelope.

I have seen the European Tutankhamun travelling exhibition twice, and I would not hesitate to go again. I understand that every single item that I am looking at is a replica—but even as replicas these are works of precise detail and craftsmanship. While admiring these “artificial” masterpieces, I have no sense of being cheated or robbed; on the contrary, I have the opportunity, in this exhibition, to follow the “unboxing” of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and the opportunity of lingering as long as I desire over each individual artefact, according to scale, from all angles, in relation to its original location and then separately: the only appropriate word is “awesome”.

And finally a warning.  Last year, in New York City there was an exhibition entitled “The Discovery of King Tut”, which has a corporate relation to TSG.[xi]  I assume that even this NYC (commercial) exhibition was subject to the real estate challenges posed by Manhattan.  A huge disappointment was that not all four “nesting dolls” were on display, presumably because of the restricted exhibition space.  But, for me, this vastly reduced the impact that I have been describing above of a parade, or a procession, or an “unboxing” of the Pharaoh’s tomb in KV62; the parade is sadly incomplete when one of the beloved “floats” goes missing.  So it seems, that even in the world of replicas and facsimiles, we should still have occasion to heed the advice of the art critic writing for The Guardian newspaper.  Jonathan Jones, no enthusiast for “second-hand” experiences, concludes his broadside, entitled “Don’t fall for a fake”,[xii] with words that apply apparently even when we discussing replicas: “Accept no substitutes.”

Next Time: “Fake Attractions”

We would like to thank The Griffith Institute for its permission to reproduce photographs and plans from the Carter Archive. All historic images and plans Copyright Griffith Institute, University of Oxford.

Replica images by Kara Holm – “The Discovery of King Tut New York” – April 2016

[i] This is both fascinating in itself, but also significant, because KV62 (Tutankhamun’s tomb) had been disturbed twice, in Antiquity, before Howard Carter’s sensational discovery in 1922.  See Aidan Dodson, “Tutankhamun’s Tomb” in The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, edited by Brian M. Fagan (1996), pp. 726-727

[ii] KV62 Dimensions: Length: 6.4m, Width, 4.14m, Height 3.68m.  “Theban Mapping Project” (American University in Cairo)

[iii] Mey Zaki, The Legacy of Tutankhamun: Art and History.  Giza, Egypt: Abydos Publications, 2008, p. 32

[iv] T.G.H. James, Tutankhamun.  Vercelli, Italy: White Star 2000; p. 83.

[v] Valley of the Kings: The Tombs and the Funerary Temples of Thebes West, edited by Kent R. Weeks: “The Tomb of Tutankhamen” by T.G.H. James.  Sassone, Italy: White Star, 2008; p. 158.

[vi] Zaki, op. cit.

[vii] Please accept that I am neither an Egyptologist nor an archeologist, so these have to be approximate figures, but they do manage to convey the fact that the burial chamber in KV62 was “filled to the brim”.

[viii] Zaki, op. cit.

[ix] There is a famous shot by Harry Burton (the photographer on Howard Carter’s team) of the unbroken cord (and seal) securing the doors of the 2nd (from outer to inner) shrine, which indicated that Tutankhamun’s coffins had, indeed, remained undisturbed since Antiquity.  See Tutankhamun’s Tomb: The Thrill of Discovery: Photographs by Harry Burton.  New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006; pp. 46-47

[x] The New York Times, November 10th, 2010 (Kate Taylor): “Met … to repatriate… Artifacts from King Tut’s Tomb”; the golden nails I admire so much were returned with a view to being displayed at “the Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza when it opens in 2012.”  A “soft opening” of GEM has been scheduled for 2018.

[xi] The two exhibitions are partnered, both produced by “SC Exhibitions”.  Apparently there are three Tutankhamun replica “units” of TSG touring the world, and then there is the North American “The Discovery of King Tut” exhibition, according to the sc.exhibitions.com website.

[xii] The Guardian, 15th April 2015 (Jonathan Jones): “Don’t fall for a fake”

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