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Recently I went to the King Tut exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). I was quite excited about seeing another Egyptian exhibit as that is a keen area of interest for me and I have seen a few other traveling exhibits. I did know I wanted to blog about my visit afterward so I approached with a bit more forethought than usual.

I booked my prepaid ticket for first thing Saturday morning, I’m very adverse to standing in lines and this was a great choice. I woke up late and had to dash out, but made my start time and was able to essentially just walk in to the exhibit. I’d recommend going early!

As part of the first group in there was room enough to maneuver around the pieces and take time at any particular one without feeling crowded or rushed. The curators were thoughtful enough to place descriptions in large print on top of the item, should you be viewing from a slight distance, as well as smaller descriptions on all sides of the boxes containing the artifacts for closer inspection.

The exhibit moves you from the general to the specific, the first few rooms showing artifacts and statuary from many Egyptian time periods with accompanying information about life at court, lives of peasants etc, architecture, funerary rites.

I was able to have a close look, in the round, of most items. I really fell for the Outer Coffin of Queen Merimut, with it’s intricate and delicate feathering of the wood, and the rich colour of the paint that is still vibrant after these some 4000 years.

I must comment on the good layout of the exhibit, with the placement of doors and corners there was enough space for people to congregate and pause, have a seat or talk about the exhibit while staying out of the way of the movement of the crowd through each section.

The second half of the exhibit is dedicated to the “Tomb of King Tut”, but it seemed more of a tribute to Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb in 1922. Replicating each of the tomb rooms and displaying items found by Carter in them I found these rooms to be slightly less enthralling than the previous ones. I’m not sure if this is due to the change in set up, with these rooms being more closed in and with different light? Or just my general dis-interest in Tutankhamen as a Pharoh.  The only interesting thing he did was evade tomb-robbers (until Carter that is).

Which brings me to the main point of what I was thinking about going into the exhibit, the ethics of displaying all of these items, particularly the items found in tombs and the “right of the dead to remain in a state of burial”. While there were no mummies present at this exhibit  (Tutankhamen remains in his tomb), by taking away the funerary items, including, in fact, parts of their bodies(in Canopic Jars) we DO deprive them of their state of burial. In Egyptian religious tradition the items and accoutrements surrounding them in their tombs are all placed there to help them continue on in the afterworld. By removing these items are we not therefore disregarding their religious beliefs?

Or are we in fact giving them the immortality that they sought? By viewing these items and keeping them fresh in our minds and cultural consciousness, they have become like gods; you can certainly see the reverence in this exhibit, and in the people viewing it.

I’m not sure, what makes Howard Carter anything more than a tomb robber himself? The delicacy to which he unearthed the items? That he didn’t steal away with the items in the dead of the night to sell on the black market? That he “gave” this to the world in an effort to “understand” Ancient Egyptians? Did he make money off of this discovery?

It’s tricky ethical ground and one of my personal sticking points with Archeology. I was happy to see that this exhibit was more than just a tribute to Tutankhamen and did want viewers to learn about the scope of Ancient Egypt. Understandably “King Tut” is used as a drawing factor and advertiser, I wonder how he would feel about being used as a pawn in an elaborate business, just as he was during his brief reign as Pharoh.

After leaving the exhibit and being ushered into the ever present gift shop… one is then set out towards the Henry Moore indoor sculpture garden. I had a seat and took some notes on the exhibit and watched people exiting. I do think it was a great idea to place the exhibit/it’s exit at this point. The Henry Moore sculptures with their fluidity  make a great contrast to the grandoise and stylized Egyptian statuary we were seeing only moments before.

The atmosphere of the sculpture garden is quiet and contemplative and somewhat unobtrusive, wonderful to wander though while reflecting on what was seen in the King Tut exhibit. For me, it seemed to cleanse me of the extremely constructed exhibit, after all it IS a business, getting the most amount of people through as quickly and as efficiently as possible, bringing me back to the true nature of an art gallery- unhurried, calm, reflective.

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Fine words

May butter no parsnips, but that isn’t going to stop me from trying. Art is one of my most favourite things in the world. And the world is the other favourite thing…

I’d like to take space to talk about art and society- from the exhibits I go to see, to the graffitti sprayed on walls around the city I live in.

Thanks for having a look!