‘Simultaneously interesting and uncomfortable.’ That is my favourite comment so far from the guest book that I asked visitors to sign when the ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’ exhibition was on at The Collection, Lincoln over the winter months. Guest books aren’t the most reliable way of knowing what visitors thought of an exhibition, of course. For one thing, the people who write something are usually the ones who were most pleased or most interested – or, perhaps, most offended or annoyed, though fortunately no one has indicated anything like that for the Tutankhamun show. Still, it means that comments may skew towards the positive and come from a self-selected audience.
For another thing, some visitors write down things that are irrelevant (‘I love Romania’, ‘Beatles 4 ever I am the Walrus), a bit rude (‘for a good time call…’), or just plain illegible. And although the guest book was in the exhibition room, with a sign clearly stating that it was for the ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’ project and giving my contact details, some visitors wrote down more general observations about the museum, including ‘Nice museum’, ‘The Fiskerton log boat was amazing’, and ‘I like the dinasore bones’, the last in a child’s emphatic hand, with three carefully inked exclamation points.
In the sign above the comments book, I told visitors that I was especially interested in hearing from people who had visited the 1972 ‘Treasures of Tutankhamun’ exhibition at the British Museum in London – an exhibition that marked the 50th anniversary of the tomb’s discovery and is the subject of my current research. Many visitors obliged, like the woman at the top of the guest book’s first page here:
I love the personal detail she remembers – and that she had seen the BBC 4 television documentary about Harry Burton, on which I was a consultant and made an appearance.
But even viewers who had no personal recollections of the 1972 exhibition nonetheless made very personal observations linking themselves to Egypt or Egyptology. One visitor wrote that it made her (from the handwriting) look forward even more to an upcoming trip to Luxor, while a couple recorded in the guest book that they had visited Egypt several times. Others flagged up their own studies of ancient Egypt, from children (like the last entry on the page above) who were ‘doing the Egyptians’ at primary school, to an anonymous comment (see below) that ‘there is much new information here even for an Egyptologist!’, which made me wonder if it had been written by anyone I know.
On the same page as the self-identified Egyptologist, there was advice to visit the Swaffham Museum (a few miles up the road from me in Norfolk, in the town where Howard Carter grew up), and a comment saying that it would have been nice to see ‘vintage prints and even glass negatives’, sandwiched between compliments about the show and its contextual material. The negatives, now in Oxford and New York City, are too fragile to travel and would have made this show prohibitively expensive to put on, even if one or two did get permission. Borrowing objects from museums and archives often needs a one-year lead time, conservation approval and treatments, and for the borrower to pay all the costs of shipping, including a conservator or curator to travel with the objects. So, no negatives – but the show is based on new, high-quality digital scans taken from the original negatives and reversed to make a ‘print’, plus I’ve been able to borrow, or buy, ephemera like cigarette cards, postcards, and newspaper articles to show how the photographs were used at the time and for decades afterwards.
What about vintage prints, that is, prints from the time of the excavation, probably made by Burton himself? In the Oxford and New York archives, prints that we can be pretty sure were made by Burton are mounted in albums. The New York set of albums also contain prints made after Burton’s death. Similarly, the Oxford archive has a long wooden storage box – they call it ‘the coffin’ – full of prints, some of which may be by Burton, but many of which date from throughout the 20th century, as photographs were copied, reprinted, and exchanged. The point of this exhibition, and many of the things I’ve written about the Tutankhamun photographs, is that archaeologists themselves weren’t bothered about who made the print. Neither was a photographer like Burton. This wasn’t photography as art. This was photography as a tool. Thus, ‘vintage prints’ can be tricky to identify, and in any case, since they are material, physical objects, they would face the same restrictions and costs when it came to borrowing them for display.
Several people in this guest book, or by email, or in person, have asked me about one particular photograph in the show: the profile view of the head of Tutankhamun’s mummy, which clearly shows that it was removed from his body at the base of the neck. This was done in order to get the mummy mask (with the head still inside) out of the inner, solid gold coffin, where everything had been stuck together by the oils and liquefied resins poured over the burial as part of the sacred rituals that were at the very heart of mummification. Carter and his colleagues then prised the wrapped head out of the mask using hot knives to melt the resin-rich goo. The photographs Burton took of the head propped on the brush handle – on top of what the Cambridge museum technicians have told me was probably a carpenter’s sawhorse – were never meant for publication, and they never were published until the 1960s. They were the kinds of photographs you automatically took of mummies and skeletons in archaeology at that time – and part of the visual language of racial (racist) science, that is, the prevalent idea that human beings could be divided up into races based on physical features, especially of the skull.
So I wasn’t surprised that one visitor commented on that photograph in the guest book, and in terms with which I’m now familiar: ‘sacrilege’, this visitor wrote, followed by a (supposed) Egyptian curse that has often been quoted in popular books about ancient Egypt. Other comments I’ve heard or read about that photograph run along similar lines – why detach the head, why treat it this way for photography, and is it something we’d want done to our own bodies?
Yet curators in museums invariably report that Egyptian mummies, especially unwrapped or partly unwrapped bodies, are the most popular part of any exhibition about ancient Egypt. Is viewing ‘the real thing’ easier than viewing a photograph? Is the response people seem to have to this photograph more to do with the fact that we know the identity of this person, this mummified head? A bit of both, I suspect. Given that I debated with myself whether to include the photograph of the mummified head, I’m intrigued and a bit relieved by the reactions. One thing I’ve learned is that putting something on display can more effectively get a point across than hiding it away. Context is everything, though. It’s the information – the text – provided with that photograph that makes the difference, as well as the impact of the photographs that are shown either side of it. In this case, the photograph of the head appears in between profile views of the mask and of two walking stick handles carved in the shape of dark-skinned African men, shown with their arms pinned behind them like prisoners.
That sequence of photographs is making a verbal and visual point about the way ideas of race – and of ancient Egypt – have been created and distributed for decades, even centuries. In the rest of the exhibition, this chimes with another theme that is important to me and my research, namely the role that hundreds of Egyptians, men and women, boys and girls, from every social group, played in the discovery, excavation, and preservation of the tomb and its objects. A couple of visitors in the guest book picked up on this theme, and I’ll end with the comment below about the ‘”hidden” characters’ in the photographs. On purpose, I did not use any of the ‘classic’, heavily staged photographs of Howard Carter, Arthur Mace, or Alfred Lucas working in the tomb. Carter appears only off to the side in one photograph – a group shot of Egyptian politicians visiting in 1926. Instead, the ‘hidden’ workers are the Egyptian archaeologists, basket boys, and camera assistants that our eyes, and our histories of Egyptology, have otherwise overlooked. ‘A real treat for the soul’ – I can’t ask for much more than that.