My book, Photographing Tutankhamun, was officially published two days ago with Bloomsbury Academic in the UK and United States, and the American University of Cairo Press, for sales in Egypt. It marks a beginning and an end: the beginning for the book, to go out into the world and see what people make of it, but an end, for me, of a project I’ve lived with for more than four years now.
I have already spotted two typographic errors (both of which I know I corrected in the proofs…), plus a word changed by a well-meaning proofreader, which ruins a little joke in the acknowledgements. I think I should have done a clearer job of signalling which of the Burton-photograph figures is scanned from a negative, and which from a print. And as I’ve written about here before, I’m also aware of the sources I didn’t have the time, or language skills, to consult, not to mention those that only came to light when it was too late to add them – I plan to write something soon here on camera models, for instance.
But research has to end somewhere, just as 2018 is about to end, too. Apart from the year (2015) in which I did the bulk of the archival research, it’s this past year that has been the most Tutankhamun-intensive. This was the year of revising and installing the exhibition at the University of Cambridge, plus going through the book copy-edits and two sets of proofs. The year also took me back to the United States to see more of Harry Burton’s work in the Egyptian department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and to deliver a public lecture at Harvard University. The audience held some new faces (a great-nephew of Howard Carter’s came up afterwards to introduce himself), plus familiar ones, including colleagues from Brown University and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
There was one face who was especially familiar – an old friend from high school, who’d made the journey in part to visit his son, studying in Boston, and in part, he told me, for the pleasure of seeing someone he knew back in the day, now giving lectures at Harvard. This friend and I had spent endless hours sitting opposite each other in class, thanks to teachers’ love of alphabetized seating plans (my last name with an R, his with an S). His homework advice helped me get through four years of math classes, and he was the only thing that made sense in our computer programming class – something he went on to excel in professionally, while I went off to study Egyptology.
At the end of high school, I wanted a new beginning, far away and in a subject no one really thought would lead anywhere (‘Make sure you have typing skills to fall back on’, was one former teacher’s advice.) Egypt had grabbed me already in primary school, as we watched a film strip on Ancient Egypt that hummed in the projector, never quite in sync with the sonorous tape-recorded accompaniment. It must have been produced in conjunction with the ‘Treasures of Tutankhamun’ exhibition, the original ‘blockbuster’ museum show that toured the United States from 1976 to 1979. One of the coloured squares of celluloid, shimmering on the pull-down screen, showed something that mesmerized me: a little gold coffin that had held some of the internal organs taken from Tutankhamun’s body.
Made of hammered sheet gold inlaid with hundreds of pieces of coloured glass and semi-precious stones, there are four of these mini-coffins, each near-identical and stunning. They have become the poster-boys for more recent touring exhibitions of the Tutankhamun finds. It wasn’t anything particular about Tutankhamun that grabbed me back in that darkened classroom, nor anything about the mummification process with its removal and wrapping of the lungs, liver, intestines, and spleen. It was the sheer, resounding beauty of the thing – that and the fact that it looked like nothing I had ever seen before.
Life, like a research project, has its unexpected turns. An educational filmstrip takes one person off the beaten track (for my hometown) to a career in academia, while a classroom kitted out with Commodore TRS-80s (yes) takes another person into a career in programming. Schooldays feel like they are full of beginnings, which is one thing I like about working to the rhythm of an academic, rather than a calendar, year. But life, like a research project, confronts us with endings, too. That old friend died, far too young, the day after Christmas, making this dark time of year all the darker. He was proud of me, he wrote to me after we’d caught up, too briefly, after my lecture only a few weeks ago. Proud of me: it sounded so simple, the way he put it, just as everything sounded simple when he helped with math homework.
And yet, how little we tell ourselves, or each other, that simple thing. What’s the first thing I said above about my book? Its weaknesses. Harry Burton, too, was often critical about his work in the letters he sent back to his employer in New York. Not false modesty, either – insecurity, bashfulness, or perhaps a legacy of having pulled oneself up by the proverbial bootstraps. ‘Impostor syndrome’ in 2018-speak.
I’ve always preferred fresh starts to anticlimactic endings, and certainly to tragic ones. Nonetheless, before rushing into pastures new, it’s as well to pause and weigh up the past, for good or ill. The things done well, for all their tiny flaws. The things not said that should have been. The lives cut short, whether in New Kingdom Egypt (Tutankhamun was 18, before anyone goes gawping at his mummy) or this past week in a hospital ICU. Pause, until something beautiful flickers in the light or hums and hovers just behind, waiting, willing, for you to start. Again.
I haven’t written here in a few months. Which doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing – I’m always writing, something, somewhere – only that I haven’t had anything I felt I could share in this forum. Life gets in the way, too. Academics aren’t terrible humans, but terribly human.
And being human, we miss things out sometimes. A source we couldn’t track down, a language we can’t read, or a piece of evidence we inadvertently overlooked, like Dr Watson trying to keep up with Sherlock Holmes. When researching and writing my Photographing Tutankhamun book, I kept meaning to spend enough time in London (I don’t live on Baker Street) to go through a newspaper called The Egyptian Gazette. As far as I can tell, the British Library has the only run of this newspaper in the United Kingdom, which surprised me given that it was the main English-language newspaper published in Egypt during the colonial era and throughout the interwar period. Founded by British journalists in Alexandria in 1880, the Gazette is still in print, with Egyptian editors at the helm since the 1952 revolution.
The Gazette was the daily paper for the large British community in Egypt, including archaeologists. Tutankhamun photographer Harry Burton referred to the newspaper in some of his letters from Egypt, passing on news to colleagues back in New York. In 1933, for instance, he wrote to Herbert Winlock: ‘According to the Gippy Gazette, Lacau has renewed his contract with the Gov[ernmen]t for another three years. At the beginning of the season it was rumoured that he was going to resign […] but Madame won’t let him!’ Lacau was Pierre Lacau, head of the Antiquities Service in Egypt from 1914 to 1936 – and the man with whom Howard Carter clashed over the fate of the objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb. And yes, ‘Gippy’ is a derogatory diminutive of ‘Egyptian’, a slang that appears elsewhere in Burton’s letters and must have been common parlance at the time. Certainly he felt comfortable using it in his professional correspondence.
To my regret, I never did make it to the British Library to read through TheEgyptian Gazette during the 1920s, when it covered the excavation of the tomb and all the legal and political controversy around it. Life got in the way, and I decided that a complete book that relied on other scholars’ use of the Gazette (like the excellent Donald Malcolm Reid) was better than an incomplete book languishing on my laptop. Not ideal, but the best I could do in the circumstances. The list of sources in Photographing Tutankhamun makes it clear which newspapers I did consult, and crucially how I accessed them: namely, by database, on a laptop or as print-outs, from desks in Oxford and Norfolk, and occasionally an armchair by the fire. Research, Watson-style.
Unlike several major newspapers in British and North American cities, the Gazette hasn’t been digitized by scanning it (although an effort to digitize and analyze a single year, 1905, has been undertaken by Prof. Will Hanley‘s students at Florida State University, in a fascinating online project). Instead, it’s kept on microfilm, the medium of an earlier generation of ‘digitization’. If you’ve never used it before, viewing microfilm has its frustrations, and sitting in front of a microfilm reader, scrolling through one roll of film at a time, can be frustrating and hypnotizing, in turns. It is undoubtedly time-intensive work, unless you have a specific date or narrow date range of pages you want to read. Digitally scanned newspapers, in contrast, have searchable text, so as long as you know that Tutankhamun was spelled ‘Tutankhamen’ in the 1920s, you can stick the name into a database search function and work your way through whatever results turn up.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Word searches in a database are time-efficient, but unless you take the time to read the surrounding pages, or the whole issue, of the publication, you miss out on the experience readers at the time had. Knowing that news of Tutankhamun appeared right next to news about the occupation of the Ruhr valley, a flu epidemic, and the Lausanne Conference – all of which were knock-on effects of the First World War – helps put the political context of Egyptian archaeology in focus, which is where it should be. Microfilm takes time, more time than I had for the book project in the end, but for all that it feels far-removed from the physical experience of handling a newspaper, it does give you more of a sense of what a whole newspaper was.
An overlooked aspect of both microfilm and scan-based digitization are the motivations behind the selection of what to record in the first place. An award-winning academic article by Prof. Paul Fyfe, entitled ‘An Archaeology of Victorian Newspapers’ (PDF) details the involvement of intelligence services like the CIA – yes, really – in earlier drives to preserve library material. Microfilm technology, which is a form of micro-photography, itself developed out of intelligence operations. Its potential was then marketed to libraries and record offices, especially after the bombing campaigns of the Second World War made the preservation of printed material (or at least, some printed material) seem an urgent priority. Seventy years later, preserving printed material through technology still seems an urgent priority – but as Fyfe points out, ‘New media is always in the process of constituting itself as new, erasing the legacies of its entanglements and the continuous work of its propagation.’ (Fyfe 2016, p. 546).
In other words, as I often say about photography and archives, there is no neutral source, no innocent image or record. Sometimes the people who were making and using photographs in colonial-era and interwar archaeology reveal more awareness of a photograph’s unreliability than the scholars who treat those photographs today as sacrosanct ‘records’ of immediate facts. To end this post, appropriately, here is a snippet from The Egyptian Gazette, courtesy of my colleague Dr William Carruthers – who has been more assiduous than me about scrolling through microfilm in the British Library. Published Saturday, 17 October 1931, it’s a feature about a book on forensic chemistry, written by Alfred Lucas – one-time head of the Egyptian Government’s analytical laboratory, who dedicated several years to the repair, analysis, and chemical treatment of objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb. ‘Egypt’s Sherlock Holmes’, the headline calls him:
The article reveals awareness – and anxiety – about how unreliable photographs could be: ‘When dealing with photographs, it should not be forgotten that both negatives and prints are very easily “faked”. Thus a negative may not be the original negative, but a secondary one on which something not on the original has been added or from which something has been omitted, and in the same way the print may have been made from a “faked” original or from a secondary negative.’
Such processes of re-photography were everyday practices, as was the manipulation of negatives or positives, for instance to edit them for publication. If some photographs were more ‘true’, and some negatives more honest, it was because only a community of practitioners accepted a certain range of interference with the image – and rejected anything outside that range. A lot depended on trust. No wonder advice manuals for field photography, or a book on forensics, like Lucas’s here, gave such precise stipulations for taking ‘good’ (trustworthy) photographs.
Elementary, whether you’re a Holmes or a Watson: photographs aren’t facts. They’re photographs. I may have missed out some sources, but I’m confident I got the fundamentals right. And I promise, this very human academic will one day make it to the British Library and scroll through those microfilms myself.
Here are a couple of great books that tackle questions around the reliability of photography, plus something I wrote about re-photography in the Tutankhamun archive:
There’s a pub carved into a corner of the lively market in Norwich, the city where I teach at the University of East Anglia. It’s called The Sir Garnet, its name shortened after a recent refurbishment from The Sir Garnet Wolseley. Sometimes, when giving public talks in or around Norwich, I’ve asked people if they know who Sir Garnet was. No one has ever been able to answer. For all that many people claim to love history – and in Britain, to love British history and British heritage – it’s funny how much history we forget. Or choose to ignore.
In August and September 1882, Garnet Wolseley’s name was on the front page of every newspaper in Great Britain, because he was commander-in-chief of the British expeditionary force that invaded Egypt, using the Suez Canal as the backdoor for a land invasion to suppress a nationalist uprising led by the Egyptian military leader Ahmed Orabi (also spelled Urabi; he held the honorary civil rank of pasha, too).
The uprising had been rumbling for years, reflecting growing popular resentment of foreign interference in Egypt’s affairs. The British navy had already bombarded Alexandria in July 1882 after a series of riots broke out, aimed against the many European residents of the city – who were associated with preferential treatment and decades of economic exploitation. A full day of shelling, and the fires that followed, destroyed swathes of the city, as documented by Italian photographer Luigi Fiorillo in the days and weeks afterwards. British troops entered and occupied the city as Orabi and his forces fled. In Britain, Prime Minister William Gladstone appointed Wolseley to head an expeditionary force to invade Egypt by land and secure the all-important Canal route. Wolseley’s forces defeated Orabi’s troops at the battle of Tel el-Kebir and soon occupied Cairo. In November, the British Parliament promoted Wolseley to full general, gave him a bonus of £30,000, and made him Baron Wolseley of Cairo and Wolseley.
The importance of the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882, which was front-page news for months, is why I suspect Norwich’s marketplace pub got its name that year. Not that Wolseley wasn’t in the news at other points in his long career.* His was a typical colonial officer’s life: from Anglo-Irish (Protestant) origins, he served in almost every outpost of the British Empire, from Burma (Myanmar) to Crimea to Canada, where he ventured to the USA to observe the Civil War there. He met generals on both sides, including William Tecumseh Sherman (born in my hometown), but Wolseley’s sympathies lay with the Confederate side – he was a big fan of General Lee. From Canada, Wolseley went to the Gold Coast (now Ghana) to suppress anti-British revolts by the Asante people, and from there it was on to southern Africa and Cyprus. Wolseley longed to serve in the ‘jewel in the Crown’, India, but it was not to be. After the successful campaign in Egypt, Wolseley next joined the failed British expedition to try to rescue Gordon, Governor-General of Sudan, at Khartoum, where the Mahdist uprising threatened British (and Ottoman Egyptian) ambitions to control the entire Nile and exploit the mining opportunities of the surrounding deserts and mountains. The relief effort – which used Thomas Cook steamers to carry supplies – arrived two days after Gordon had been killed. Britain would spend several more decades occupying Egypt and trying to subdue the Sudan.
Wait, isn’t this a blog about Tutankhamun, photography, and archaeology? Yes it is, which is why I’m talking about pubs and politics today. Because they all go together. I studied for many years to become an Egyptologist, but as I’ve written about here before, I often question whether I still can, or want to, call myself an Egyptologist. That’s partly because my own research interests and methodological approaches have always drawn on scholarship from other fields, like art history, classical archaeology, anthropology, and critical heritage and museum studies. And it’s partly because the more I’ve worked with and thought about archival sources concerned with Egyptology – like the excavation archive of the tomb of Tutankhamun – the more aware I am of how impossible it is to get to any kind of knowledge of the ancient past without being very carefully attuned to all the layers of recent history that go with it.
I’m just back from the annual colloquium hosted by the British Museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan – which this year had as its theme ‘Displaying Egypt’. (You can find the programme and paper abstracts here, and see the hashtag #Displaying Egypt on Twitter for some live tweets and follow-up discussion.) One of the speakers on the last day was an Egyptian Egyptologist, the fantastic Heba Abd el Gawad, who is writing her PhD at Durham University and has worked on several curatorial projects in the UK. At one point in her talk – which was about Egyptians’ riffs on ancient Egypt, via social media – Heba checked to see whether the audience knew who Orabi Pasha was. In the part of the auditorium where I was sitting, the audience was silent – the kind of dead silence I hear in a roomful of students when I realize I’ve just made a cultural reference that isn’t on their radar (Bruce Springsteen lyrics or anything to do with gardening will have this effect, I find.)
But Orabi Pasha, in a room that was mostly full of people studying Egyptology, working in Egyptology, or interested enough in Egyptology to pay the registration fee and spend two days in the British Museum’s lecture theatre, listening to papers about how Egypt has been, or could be, presented in museums? That shouldn’t be the case. There is a fundamental flaw in the teaching and public presentation of the ancient past if the people who want to study and work with that past never learn – never even feel they should learn – anything about the modern circumstances in which more than 200 years of ‘discovering’, collecting, and interpreting that ancient past have taken place. A similar argument can be made for knowledge of the Arabic language: of the six years I spent studying hieroglyphs, quite fruitlessly (I’m terrible with dead languages), I now wish I’d spent the time studying Arabic instead.
My own talk at the colloquium bridges some work that I present near the end of the Photographing Tutankhamun book (going to print next week!) and some new work I’ve been doing, about the planning and impact of the ‘Treasures of Tutankhamun’ exhibition held at the British Museum in 1972 and later followed up by an American version.
I wanted to make a point about the twin phenomena of imperialist nostalgia and imperialist amnesia.** Because in all the many versions of the touring Tutankhamun show, no mention whatsoever is made of the political context of the find, which you can read more about in this blog by Juliette Desplat at The National Archives. All archaeology was (and is) political. But Tutankhamun played a major role in the diplomatic dance between Britain and Egypt as Egypt tried, not for the first or last time, to determine its own path as a fully-fledged nation-state.
The silence that hung over that part of British and Egyptian history in 1972 (and, frankly, now) seems to me a perfect example of the entrenched amnesia where the colonial and imperial past is concerned – in Britain and elsewhere. If the colonial context of archaeology is mentioned at all within archaeology or Egyptology, it’s often reduced to an adventure story, all ‘discovery’ and ‘disinterested science’, with a dash of gold and glory. No violence, no suppression, no injustice, no economic or political interests at stake. What exactly do British audiences think all those uprisings – from the Gold Coast to India, by way of Egypt and Sudan – were rising up against? It certainly wasn’t Bruce Springsteen lyrics or when to plant broad beans, so why has everyone drawn a blank?
That’s amnesia for you. Which histories do we remember, which histories do we teach in our schools, and which histories do we present in our museums? I’m interested in the subtle, unspoken ways in which photographs reinforce the silence even as they purport to show us history as it really was. Here’s the thing: photographs don’t show us facts. They don’t show us ‘how it really was’. Photographs need to be treated with the same scrupulous care we give to any other historical document.^ Who took that photograph, and how, and where, and why? What happened to it afterwards? What assumptions went into taking it, how many people were involved, in what language did they communicate?
Those are the kinds of questions I’ve asked of the Tutankhamun photographs, for instance. Look again, above, at Burton’s photograph of the ‘untouched’ Antechamber of the tomb, taken in December 1922. That chamber had been opened for almost a month, and rigged for electricity supplied by the Egyptian government for the purpose. At least a dozen people, more likely two dozen, had been in and out, and there were probably three or four Egyptian assistants behind the camera or out-of-shot, working alongside Harry Burton to take the photographs the world was waiting for. That tomb chamber is about as ‘untouched’ as the tea and cake stall at my village’s summer fete last weekend. Because that’s the nature of photography. It needs time, it needs equipment, and it needs a reason and a will. Same goes for Luigi Fiorillo’s photographs of Alexandria after the British bombardment, and for the way they’ve been mounted into an album book-ended by portraits of the main military and political actors (Orabi and the khedive appear in front).
Don’t let photographs compound our amnesia about the colonial and imperial past. They can be so wonderfully deceptive, these images that make us feel like we were there the first time Howard Carter peered into the tomb. At the British Museum colloquium, several speakers spoke about ‘context’, meaning archaeological context, but only two or three of us mentioned colonialism – that is, the historical context in which every collection and museum discussed was formed. Young British men like Howard Carter, or Harry Burton, could go to Egypt to try their luck because a British army was based right in the middle of Cairo, and a British consul-general – Norfolk’s own Evelyn Baring, Lord Cromer – pulled the strings of the government nominally headed by the khedive.
It was Cromer who instituted policies such as banning state-funded education for Egyptians. No wonder it was the Egyptian speakers and audience members at the British Museum colloquium who knew perfectly well who Orabi was. He remains a symbol of Egyptian pride, resilience, and resistance: Orabi came from the peasant farming class of Egyptians, known as the fellahin, but went on to obtain a university education and lead an uprising that threatened the most powerful empire of the day. What kind of amnesia is the United Kingdom – the origin of that empire – suffering from, if the university students I teach, the public audiences I talk to, and many of the Egyptologists I meet, here on imperial home turf, don’t know this history, and much more besides?
It’s not just knowing history, of course. It’s what you do with it. I asked this question in my talk yesterday: What could Egyptology do with its past other than hang it up on the wall to admire? That’s a rhetorical question, but I hope one day I’ll see some answers.
(*) The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is a great source for figures in British History like Wolseley, but it does require a subscription for full access. Your public library or a university library may be able to help.
(^) See the ever-excellent Jennifer Tucker, in collaboration with Tina Campt, ‘Entwined practices: Engagements with photography in historical inquiry’, History and Theory 48.4 (2009), pp. 1-8 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/25621434).
‘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.
I hadn’t really thought about Tutankhamun, or even photography, for a couple of months while I got on with teaching something else, because that’s how academia works sometimes. But about a month ago, inevitably, Tutankhamun hove back into view. First with new research I’ve been doing on the 1972 British Museum exhibition (which I’ll write about soon), second with plans for the Cambridge version of my own ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’ exhibition (which I’ll be starting to install tomorrow morning), and third, just this past week, with the proof version of my book, Photographing Tutankhamun, due out by the end of this year from Bloomsbury. The cover design was agreed months ago, to fit the style of the fantastic ‘Photography, History: History, Photography’ series in which my book will appear.
The proofs I received this week are the text inside – all 280-some pages of it, which will be closer to 300 by the time the index is done. There’s always a pain and a pleasure to this stage: the pain of little errors that have crept in, inconsistencies that escaped even a good copy-editor, or things I realize are my own fault, where I’ve changed my thinking about a phrase or word or idea. But there’s a pleasure, too, in seeing how well the text and images fit together, and in seeing one’s own words really – or almost – ‘in print’, rather than on my laptop screen or my tattered, much marked-up manuscript print-out.
For me, a frustrated novelist, opening lines matter – and I always, always, write the first chapter first. So the start of Chapter 1, which you see above in the PDF proof, is the first thing I wrote for this book, when I returned to my home in Norfolk after carrying out three months of research in the Tutankhamun archives at Oxford University. I thought I was going to write a pretty straightforward book about how this most famous of archaeological finds, documented by a famous excavator, through a set of famous photographs, told us something about the relationship between archaeology and photography in 1920s Egypt. But somewhere in those archives, I had a little crisis. The kind of crisis that, fortunately, I’m now experienced enough as a researcher to know is a Good Thing. Because it takes some kind of crisis, big or small, to get to the breakthrough that shows you what your work is really about.
When this happens while you’re a student – it happened to me, and I see it happening now to my own students – it feels frightening. Rather than proof of your abilities and ideas, it feels like the opposite: proof that you were never cut out for this kind of work. Proof that all those years of study, of living on very little money (and loans), of patiently explaining to concerned relatives that being an academic is, indeed, an actual job even if no one they’ve ever met does it. All of that can just make the crisis worse. So yes, fortunately, I’d been there before – and was carrying out my Tutankhamun research with the security of a good job and the comforts of a visiting fellowship at All Souls College. That meant I could get out of the archive, have a nice lunch, and think through the crisis and what it meant for my research project.
And here’s what I thought: this wasn’t (just) a book about photography and archaeology in 1920s Egypt. This was a book about archives. About ‘the archive’ in both a very down-to-earth sense (papers, prints, albums, files, letters, documents) and in a more abstract sense, because archives – records – are the foundations of modern society. Creating, storing, filing, and retrieving information lie at the heart of our political, fiscal, and legal systems, not to mention organizations ranging from businesses to cultural organizations. Archives matter because they can give us history from two sides: the side that gets conscientiously recorded and filed away, and the side that slips through. That’s the side that doesn’t make into official accounts; the comments and inclusions (or exclusions) that are meaningful only with hindsight; or the information and images that have been buried, overlooked, or ignored. Archives made it possible for a research team at University College London to create a database of all the people – normal, average people – who benefited financially from the slave trade, for instance. And there are sound reasons why the destruction of archives – as the British foreign office did when it withdrew from one-time colonies – raises such ire, or should.
Maybe archaeological archives, like the Tutankhamun archive, don’t seem likely to yield dramatic new insights into modern history. It’s just ancient stuff, right? That’s certainly how most Egyptologists have used the Tutankhamun records – the ‘just the facts, ma’am’ approach to antiquity, I often call it, because it assumes (like Sergeant Friday in the old DragnetTV series) that there are some ‘facts’ you can get to without paying much attention to how they’re being told, or by whom. But archaeology in 1920s Egypt was as political as, well, pretty much any archaeology in the Middle East, from the 18th century to the present day. Until now, archaeology has mostly been told from only one, supposedly disinterested, point of view, with firm ‘facts’ as its focus. Once I started to see the Tutankhamun photographs as part of an archive that had its own layers of stratigraphy, in which ‘facts’ were being made (and re-made) before our eyes, I could see the book that I needed – and wanted – to write. I could see my Tutankhamun story.
I’m about half-way through the book proofs now. They’ll be marked up and returned to the production team for corrections, I hope by the end of next week. In the meantime, I have the new exhibition to install, a few talks to give, and other people’s manuscripts to read and comment on as well. Being an academic is, indeed, an actual job – one that had my own parents baffled, though I think my father, who died shortly before I started university, had just about reconciled himself to its possible existence. Once I’d had my little crisis in the Oxford archives, and come home to write that first line and first chapter (‘…the lie to our glimpse of history’), I wanted to acknowledge that part of my ownhistory. My own archive, as it were. That’s when I wrote a dedication page, with which I’ll end this entry. It’s going to be sandwiched between the copyright bumph and the table of contents. Some authors eschew dedications. I sometimes have, sometimes not. For this book, this felt right. Facts? Yes, from my perspective. Proof? Let’s hope so.
Given that ‘write blog’ has been on my to-do list for more than two months, not keeping up with my to-do list is clearly one way in which I’ve been undisciplined of late. That and descaling my kettle – which is steaming away with some distilled vinegar inside it as I (finally) write this post.
But there’s another way in which I feel undisciplined: having taken three university degrees in archaeology and Egyptology, it’s been a long time since I felt confident or comfortable describing myself as either an archaeologist or an Egyptologist. Sometimes, those do feel like the most apt designations of where I sit in terms of having an academic discipline. Other times, I feel more like a historian or an art historian. After all, I do work and teach in an art history department, and I have spent most of my life looking at, thinking about, talking about, and writing about the past and what survives of it in the present.
One of the many satisfying things about working on the history of photography the past few years has been discovering that many other academics in this field also feel undisciplined. We are employed at, or studying in, a whole range of archives, museums, and research institutes. Many of us are based in university departments designated as history of science, art history, or just plain history, not to mention departments of archaeology, anthropology, Classics, or film and media studies. At conferences, thrilled to find someone else in the world who cares about the colour of 20th-century photograph mounts, we cluster at coffee breaks asking each other not just ‘what do you do?’ but ‘what are you?’ and ‘where are you?’ – as if the rest of the time, we were goslings in a world of ducks.
Nothing wrong with ducks, of course. But it takes a certain kind of perseverance – or stubbornness – to follow an academic path less travelled, for all that the academic world has been talking about ‘inter-disciplinarity’ for a long as I’ve been part of it. Two things happened this past week that reminded me, once again, that much of my current and recent research seems alien, inappropriate, or simply irrelevant to the archaeologists and Egyptologists whom I still think of as my colleagues and my audience. Updating one colleague on my forthcoming Photographing Tutankhamun book inspired her to caution me, ‘Of course, you have to remember that they are archaeological photographs’. It’s not the first time I’ve heard something like that from an Egyptologist – the implication being, I think, that no other critique or consideration of the photographs is possible except as ‘scientific evidence’. Nonetheless, my book spends 100,000 words or so exploring all the other meanings and roles that photography had in archaeology – and I certainly hope that most Egyptologists will read it.
A couple of days later, during a conversation about approaches to teaching, another colleague told me that the history of archaeology isn’t archaeology. Archaeology is method, to this colleague’s mind, and students of archaeology first and foremost need to learn field practices and technical analyses. Then interpretation. Then, maybe on the side, some of the history of archaeological thought. ‘But that’s not archaeology’, this colleague emphasized. Since my own research and teaching argues that you can’t operate in a self-aware and effective way within a discipline unless you understand why it does the things it does, or doesn’t, do, we had reached an impasse. I was outside of archaeology, to her mind. A gosling waddling between neatly squared trenches.
After that conversation, I tried to remember my first classes as an archaeology undergraduate at Brown University. There was a field techniques class in the second semester of my first year, it’s true. Sandbox archaeology, we called it. It’s where I met my first boyfriend. I can use a trowel and a plumb bob, draw a trench section, and even just about draw pottery. But before we were allowed to do field techniques, we had to take a class that introduced us to archaeology through key sites, thinkers, and themes. It wasn’t a critical or theoretical class, not at all, and I would not read or think about the history of archaeology, colonialism, and the Middle East until I picked up an Edward Said book as a graduate student, plucking it from a table for the cover, the price, and the fact that it was in English when I was travelling in Egypt and had run out of Henry James.
More than field techniques and field experience (I have washed my share of potsherds), it was that general ‘introduction to archaeology’ class at Brown that started to give me some sense of being an archaeologist and thinking like an archaeologist. I then became an Egyptologist by virtue of studying hieroglyphs, a core requirement of my master’s degree. By the time I started my doctorate, I had abandoned archaeology and Near Eastern Studies departments to spend time in an art history department, which suited my interests better in many ways – but confused my identity even more. In the end, and with apologies to Edward Said, I wound up with a doctorate in Oriental Studies because it was the closest I could come to studying the art and artefacts that I wanted to study.
For more than ten years now, I’ve been the only Egyptologist employed by an art history department in the United Kingdom – a department that decided more than twenty years ago that archaeology and anthropology were essential complements to more traditional, Western art-based approaches to visual and material culture. It’s been a good fit for me, or at least as good a fit as any. But I’m still not sure what to call myself – nor, I think, are many of my colleagues.
Hence the relief at finding birds of a similar feather in the field of photographic history. The more work I do on the history of archaeology and Egyptology, however, the more convinced I am that it is deeply, even urgently, relevant to the practice of archaeology and Egyptology today. At a photography conference last year, I sat at dinner next to one of my heroes, an art historian who works on representations of the Middle East and the Mediterranean in 19th-century images and thought. Why shouldn’t an art historian work on the history of photography, he said – and why shouldn’t I, an Egyptologist, be able to be an Egyptologist while working on material so foundational to the field as the Tutankhamun excavation photographs? Why indeed.
We’re not the ones who need to change, was his point. It’s the ducks. I think I can quack to that.
At the start of my career, in fact as soon as I started graduate school, I wanted nothing more than to work in a museum. The direct contact with antiquities, the chance to create displays for the public, the swanky receptions that I was sure accompanied exhibition openings: perfect. And I did wind up working in many museums, as a volunteer, as a paid student intern, on short-term contracts, and finally, a permanent contract. From my first behind-the-scenes experience at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in 1995, to the day I left my post as curator of the Manchester Museum Egyptian collection, with more relief than regret, I spent more than 11 years working in museums. In all that time, though, I never curated a temporary exhibition. I worked on major gallery overhauls, and I made a few minor tweaks here and there to individual displays. But coming up with a single idea to develop as a temporary show, with the aim of drawing in visitors just for that – nope, never had the chance and never learned the specific skills that it requires. Most of my museum work involved caring for large collections, which meant dealing with day-to-day inquiries, improving storage and cataloguing, and processing loans to other museums that were organizing exhibitions.
Applying for a Mid-Career Fellowship from the British Academy back in 2013 gave me the chance to revisit my curatorial past. To fulfill the public dissemination aspect of the fellowship – that is, how was I going to share my research beyond academia? – I came up with the idea of creating a relatively low-cost, high-quality, photography-based exhibition that could travel to small venues, or to small spaces within larger venues. Because my research is based on the premise that photography was a working tool in archaeology, and was not at all considered some kind of art form, I wanted to get away from the conventional manner of displaying photographs in frames on gallery walls, as I’ve discussed. I also wanted to serve local and regional museums near me – something which seemed a natural fit given that photographer Harry Burton grew up in Stamford, Lincolnshire, while lead excavator Howard Carter grew up in Swaffham, Norfolk.
When my fellowship application was successful for 2015, I had to deliver. I came up with a proposal and sent it to several museums, including The Collection in Lincoln, which had impressed me when I’d visited in 2014 while in this delightful cathedral city for a Museums and Galleries History Group conference. It’s in a wonderful modern building halfway up Steep Hill, next to its older museum sister, the Usher Gallery. Archaeology curator and collections manager Antony Lee invited me up for a meeting, showed me their Courtyard Gallery, and convinced his colleagues to schedule the show for a nice, long run. It opened last Friday, November 10th, and will be on show until January 28th in the new year.
With the luxury of time that research leave – and only research leave – gives to us academics, I sat down with a plan of the gallery, some squared paper, a pencil, a straight edge, and a head full of ideas from my research, which was well underway by then. Having seen the space, and knowing the Tutankhamun photographic archive as well as I do, I could visualize a series of same-sized panels placed rhythmically around the walls. I hoped the visual effect would lead visitors from one to the other, letting them focus on the photographs while taking in as much or as little of the supporting text as they wished. I selected and grouped the photographs in a meaningful order. I even had four working themes, one for each wall – but in the end, I think visitors go where they want to go. An exhibition has to have enough structure to get an idea across, but enough flexibility so that visitors don’t need to follow a set order or read every label (who does?) in order to get the curator’s idea. Or, indeed, come away with their own idea instead.
This is a slightly dark shot of the first and brightest wall, since it benefits from a large window into The Collection’s courtyard. The introductory panel is a perfect square twice as wide (120cm) as the rest of the panels. The 400-word text is probably twice as long as it should be, but I couldn’t whittle it down more than that and say what I thought was important for people to know. I hope the bold paragraph headings help people who do want to read some of it pick and choose which bits are most interesting to them.
Around the other three sides of the gallery, as you see above, that sense of rhythmic repetition emerges, which I hope we can recreate when the exhibition moves to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge in June. On the left wall in this image, we had to hang the panels closer together than I’d planned, since I’d forgotten about the two small windows. These can be covered up, but the Lincoln curators and I thought they made a nice feature, so we did a little bit of bunching up instead.
The back wall, with four panels, is one where I hope visitors will spend some time. It features the Egyptians whose work was absolutely crucial to the excavation, including some of the politicians who helped make it happen and who (as politicians do) used it for their own image-making as well. These four panels also introduce an idea that seems ever more important to get across these days, by pointing out the endemic racial prejudice that shaped relationships between Western archaeologists and the Egyptians they worked alongside every day. This influenced how archaeology characterized race in antiquity, studied human remains, and created misleading models of cultural ‘progress’, where white Europeans always came out on top. On a lighter note, I made an evening excursion to Paperchase in Lincoln to buy a comments book, some pens, and some light blue washi tape to coordinate with the panels. Never say that I lack an eye for detail.
Two beautiful, identical display cases positioned in the centre of the room gave me a chance to get back on more familiar territory: laying out objects and positioning labels, instead of hanging things on walls. One case shows some newspapers and magazines contemporary with the 1920s dig, while this one expands that to look at how Harry Burton’s photographs, and other photographs of the tomb, circulated for decades afterwards. Many of the items on display are my own – things that I’ve acquired in the course of my research. Others have been lent by friends and colleagues. To offer something a little more three-dimensional, I’ve rested the labels on top of early 20th-century dark slides – the holders, here made of mahogany (I think), that protected glass negatives from light until they were safely in the camera body. By releasing a brass latch, the photographer could lift up the sliding cover and expose the negative, then shut it back down to end the exposure. I hope Burton had much lighter, slimmer examples than these with him in Egypt, but I also hope these lend an evocative touch to the show.
Many years after I first thought of becoming a museum curator, and several years after I gave up museum curating for good, how does it feel finally to have curated a temporary exhibition? Pretty good, in fact. I’m relieved that everything arrived safely and fit the space (apart from the little windows!), and I’ve surprised myself by how good it looks in the gallery, from the scale of the panels on the walls to the way the colour (warm blue!) tones with the wooden ceiling feature and stone flooring. It was a real pleasure and a welcome change of pace to work together with Antony and his colleague Dawn Heywood, curator of art, getting everything installed. Museum work is physical work, and at small venues, there often are no technicians available to help. The three of us did the entire installation. Antony was a dab hand brad-awling where the screws should go, and I followed behind, screwing the panel battens to the wall. Dawn even took on some white wall paint touch-ups while bravely wearing black. It reminded me of one thing that I do miss about museum work: the camaraderie.
What will the public make of it, that’s the question now. I’ll keep you posted – and if you’ve visited the show, please feel free to use the contact page on this website to get in touch. Meanwhile, it’s back to my day job: teaching, emails, marking, emails, advising, emails, sitting in meetings, emails, and repeat. Not a brad awl in sight, and more’s the pity.
It’s done: the last proof has been checked, the ‘send’ button has been pressed, and the panels for the exhibition ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’ have gone to press at the superb Echo House production house. I’ve had many moments of worrying about what visitors will think when the show opens at The Collection in Lincoln in November – but there’s no turning back now.
The idea for this exhibition grew out of a British Academy research fellowship that I held in 2015 – so like most exhibitions, it’s been a long time coming, but with a lot of the work inevitably done in a flurry towards the end. But the central idea hasn’t changed, both in terms of what I wanted to explore in the exhibition, and the physical form I wanted it to take. Let me explain a bit about both, since one informs the other.
Most exhibitions of photography display photographic prints mounted in frames and fixed to the walls of a gallery. The prints might themselves be ‘vintage’, that is, printed at or near the time the photographs were taken, and perhaps even made by the credited photographer. The idea of an original photographic print, that is, something developed and printed by a named photographer – Julia Margaret Cameron, or Henri Cartier-Bresson, to take two famous names – owes a lot to a self-conscious positioning of photography as a unique artistic expression. Mounting photographs in frames also encourages us to see them as works of art, much like we would view a painting, engraving, or drawing.
But more often, photography has been a tool, not an art form. From the time of its discovery in the 1830s, using photographic technology as a recording device was the dominant idea – and recording monuments, objects, people, and natural phenomena quickly became the main use of the camera. Added to that, negative-based photographic processes allowed almost endless reproductions of the image, either from the original negative or by re-photographing existing prints, in the days before digital scanning. Negatives were also used to make magic lantern slides to project for entertainment or at public lectures, like the sold-out lectures that Howard Carter gave about his work at the tomb of Tutankhamun.
To my mind, displaying the Tutankhamun photographs in frames and hanging them on a gallery wall would invite viewers to see them only for their aesthetic value – that is, as works of art. Many of the photographs have an aesthetic value, of course. But why were certain photographs taken to look especially appealing or evocative, and what about the aesthetic of ‘objective knowledge’ that many of the photographs adopt instead? Those are the kinds of questions that interest me and inform my research.
Rather than making new prints to display in conventional gallery frames, I came up with the idea of printing digital scans from Harry Burton’s negatives on large panels. These panels also incorporate a short text, a title, and credit information, against a complementary background. Apart from the introductory panel (which you get a glimpse of, in draft form, above), each panel is the same size, and they will hang on the gallery walls at the same height, about equal distance apart. What I hoped was that this format would be flexible, allowing the exhibition to be made smaller – or larger, if we add to it – for different venues, and also allowing the panels to be reused several times, making this a cost-effective way to offer a loan exhibition to smaller museums or other venues.
The panels are made of a material called Dibond, which consists of two thin metal sheets sandwiching a core material for support. It’s often used for museum signage. Instead, for ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’, the signs become the show, asking viewers to experience photography not (or not only) on the visual level, but as a set of practices in the field and in the press, and between people, places, and objects. Photos and photography made archaeology meaningful, yes – but not for the reasons we often assume.
I haven’t written here recently because I’ve been so busy preparing teaching for the new semester at the University of East Anglia – and debating shades of blue and other design details for the ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’ exhibition, which opens November 10th at The Collection in the beautiful cathedral city of Lincoln, Lincolnshire.
If you know anything about graphic design, you’re probably familiar with Pantone – the American company whose colour (or should that be ‘color’?) charts are used as a standard in many industries, especially printing. That’s one of the charts you see in the photograph above – spread out on the desk in my office with some A3 draft printouts of the large panels that comprise the exhibition. Pantone charts are like the paint charts you pick up when you’re decorating your house, but with a gazillion more options. Fun!
We’ve been trying to find the right shade of blue to complement the new digital scans that The Griffith Institute at Oxford University have made for the exhibition, directly from Harry Burton’s glass negatives. (‘We’ means me, a couple of trusted friends and colleagues, and designer Paul Kuzemczak of GK3 design here in Norwich.) Digital scanning is an amazing tool, and one that many photographic archives use now to make both photographic positives and negatives available – ‘flipping’ the negatives so that they look like printed positives.
But: digitizing monochrome, silver-gelatine negatives like Burton’s tends to make the flipped image look a little ‘cold’, no matter how skilled the person doing the scanning. Digital versions emphasize the deep blacks and bright whites on the negative, which are then reversed on the computer to produce the positive – the images you see above. When printing his negatives to paper back in the 1920s, a photographer like Harry Burton would have achieved softer tones of grey instead, even veering into the sepia browns that we often associate with old photographs. This depended on what kind of paper was used (in one of his letters to Metropolitan Museum of Art colleagues, Burton mentioned using bromide paper) and on adjustments the photographer could make during the printing process in the darkroom. ‘Dodging’ is the term for blocking some of the light as you expose a print, which has the effect of brightening up a shadowy area on the print and making more detail visible there. ‘Burning’ is the opposite, blocking everything else on a print while you expose a too-light area for longer and thus make it appear darker on the finished photograph. Burton, by instinct and experience, would have used both.
Digital scans from negatives create a new image, and in some ways, a different one. It’s still a photograph, but it won’t be identical to any photograph Burton printed from the same negative in the 1920s, or to prints that other photographers have created in the past century using Burton’s negatives. In fact, it’s sometimes difficult to know which prints in the Tutankhamun archives were made by Burton and which were made later – changes in the paper may be the only clue. This is normal in photographic collections, and too often overlooked by people who aren’t used to working with photographs. With few exceptions, like the daguerreotype, photography isn’t a technology of the unique. It’s a technology of reproduction and multiplication – that’s what made it so powerful a tool and so popular a medium.
For the exhibition panels, the question has been how to choose a colour that warms up the cold tones of the digital scans without overwhelming the images and texts – or, for that matter, the visitors. We pretty quickly settled on a soft blue as a good visual complement for the photographs and for the white-walled venues we have in Lincoln and at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, where the show moves for summer 2018. Shades of white and grey were too, well, grey; any kind of tan or brown or red tinge (think ‘desert’) looked flat and dead with the photographs; and other colours – like greens or golds or pinky-purples – were too ‘out there’ and competed with the photographs.
So, blue it had to be – but with a hint of warmth, even though blue is usually considered a ‘cold’ colour. I think we’re nearly there. One more sample should arrive this week from our fantastic printers, Echo House, whittling it down to our last two choices. Will it be P 120-1 U or P 120-9 U, to use the Pantone chart codes? Edge of your seat stuff, obviously. Just as well they don’t have names like ‘Luxor blue’ or ‘Pharaoh’s breath’. As someone with a kitchen wall painted in Vert de Terre, I don’t think I could handle the suspense.
A rollercoaster, a water chute, a dance hall, and a Chinese restaurant: what did any of these have to do with the tomb of Tutankhamun? They were all part of the British Empire Exhibition held at Wembley in 1924 and 1925 – where a reconstruction of the tomb’s Antechamber and its treasures (as they were invariably known) could be found at the far side of the 40-acre amusement area.
Elsewhere at the Exhibition, a ‘Palace of Beauty’ sponsored by Pears, the soap manufacturer, featured lovely young women posing as famous ‘beauties’ of the past (Helen of Troy, Nell Gwynne), though I strongly suspect the ‘Palace of Engineering’ did not give visitors a chance to ogle handsome young men playing Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Instead, each part of the British Empire contributed some kind of display, somewhere. Canada, for instance, was particularly proud of its railways.
These combinations of education and entertainment, government and commerce, and British-ness with the rest-of-the-world, may seem a little strange today – but they are the precursors of our own ‘leisure industries’. We probably take for granted shopping malls like the Trafford Centre in Manchester, with its Abu Simbel-inspired food court, or the way zoos and attractions like the Eden Centre use ‘primitive’ or ‘tribal’ objects and architecture to stage their displays of animals or plants from Africa, Asia, or South America.
But I would argue that that’s the same sort of thing the inclusion of Tutankhamun’s tomb was doing in the British Empire Exhibition almost a century ago. It was part of the day-to-day, taken-for-granted inclusion of ‘the Other’ into what it meant to be British. Most of the rest-of-the-world that you could visit at the Empire Exhibition was British, remember. Hong Kong, evoked by that Chinese restaurant; Canada with its railways; or Bermuda, represented by a reconstruction of Irish poet Tom Moore’s house (‘Walsingham’, he’d called it, after the medieval pilgrimage site in my home county of Norfolk).
In other words, those ‘others’ weren’t ‘other’. They weren’t foreign, not entirely. They were British, too, woven tightly into the fabric and identity of British society despite the revisionist rhetoric of nationalist politics and the right-wing press today. Being a subject of the British Empire had many legal and practical implications, after all, which is why so many troops from what are now India, Pakistan, and other colonies fought and died in both world wars.
At the time of the British Empire Exhibition, Egypt itself wasn’t any longer part of the British Empire – and its relationship to the Empire had always been ambiguous, since until the outbreak of World War 1, it was already part of the Ottoman Empire. Egypt had been granted independence from Britain in 1922, although British administrators still kept a close eye on its internal affairs and still controlled its foreign affairs and the all-important Suez Canal. Rather than an official representation of modern Egypt, then, the reproduction of Tutankhamun’s tomb was a piece of pure entertainment, like the ‘Palace of Beauty’ and the amusement park rides. It proved to be one of the most popular attractions, seen by many of the 27 million visitors the Exhibition attracted over almost two years in west London. Among those visitors were the tomb’s photographer Harry Burton and his wife Minnie, who mentioned their excursion in her diary (see the entry for May 27) – though she doesn’t mention visiting the tomb reproduction. They’d both seen the original in person, practically from the start.
The replicas, many of which are now in the collection of Hull Museums, were made by the firm of architectural sculptor William Aumonier – part of a family of artists active in London in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of them – the reproduction of the hippo-headed funerary couch, representing the protective goddess Taweret – made a spectacular addition to the Ashmolean Museum’s Discovering Tutankhamun exhibition in 2014.
Howard Carter wasn’t so convinced. He tried to stop the tomb reproduction from going ahead, by claiming the Aumonier’s work infringed his contract with the London Times, granting the newspaper exclusive rights to Harry Burton’s photographs. But Carter lost his legal complaint. The Wembley reproduction was based on photographs, drawings, and descriptions provided by Egyptologist Arthur Weigall, who had covered the tomb’s discovery for the Daily Mail. Weigall had warned Carter, in a collegial spirit, that Carter was making a mistake by signing the Times contract and behaving arrogantly towards the Egyptian government and press. Carter paid no attention.
As it turned out – and as the Illustrated London News headline above confirms – the Wembley reproduction of the tomb opened just as Carter declared a ‘strike’ in the spring of 1924, when his long-simmering tensions with the Egyptian government and its Antiquities Service reached boiling point. That makes it all the more interesting to think about issues of ownership, both real and abstract. One of the tensions between Carter and the Egyptian antiquities authorities concerned the very copyright in press coverage and photographs that Carter was trying to protect in English courts – but another was the question of whether the Egyptian government would give Carter and the Carnarvon family any of the objects from the tomb under the ‘division’ system that Western archaeologists had come to expect. The question of cultural ‘ownership’ – were do we imagine a find like Tutankhamun ‘belongs’ – adds yet another layer.
That’s why, when I come across old news coverage of the Wembley tomb reproduction like the snippets I’ve included here, I can’t help but wonder about the cultural values and historical assumptions that were at its heart – and whether they still inform Britain’s ideas about its former colonies and protectorates today. Tutankhamun as a fairground attraction? He still makes a popular subject for all kinds of kitsch commercial products and speculative TV documentaries, which seem similar to me. King Tut may be the quintessential symbol of ancient Egypt – but he’s still experienced like the displays in the British Empire Exhibition. A little exotic, maybe, but ‘our’ exotic. Step right up.