November 14, 2007

Egypt wants something back in return…

Posted at 2:06 pm in Similar cases

Zawi Hawass couldn’t let an event with as much publicity surrounding it as the current Tutankhamen exhibition, go by without using it to draw attention to Egypts restitution requests.

The Guardian

Blaze of splendour and museum spat over Tutankhamun at the 02
Charlotte Higgins, arts correspondent
Wednesday November 14, 2007

One of the most talked about exhibitions of the year, Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, opens tomorrow in a blaze of gloriously preserved artefacts. But tensions between the Egyptian lenders to the exhibition and the British Museum threaten to overshadow the show, which sees astonishing objects from the tomb of Tutankhamun displayed in Britain for the first time since 1.7 million people queued at the British Museum 35 years ago.

Dr Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, yesterday criticised the British Museum for allegedly stalling on its decision on whether to lend the Ptolemaic era Rosetta Stone, which provided a key for understanding hieroglyphics, for the opening of Egypt’s $600m (£300m) Grand Museum in 2012. “The answer is not a straightforward yes or no from the British Museum. They say they must see the museum; but they know it is not finished until 2012 … We are not trying to keep these artefacts for ever. I am disappointed.” He added that the Egyptians had extended goodwill to Britain by lending the 130 objects that form the Tutankhamun exhibition, but that trust has not been reciprocated.

Hawass also defended the high ticket price to the show, at London’s O2: £20 for an adult at weekends, or £15 during the week. “If you go to the cinema you pay £15, and maybe you go to sleep. Here you see beautiful artefacts, you learn.” Above all, he said, up to $140m raised from the Tutankhamun tour, which has already visited several US cities as well as Bonn and Basle, will be ploughed back into the conservation of monuments in Egypt.

“Egypt gave you a lot of free meals. When the Tutankhamun exhibition came to London 35 years ago, Egypt got zero money … We didn’t get a penny and the British Museum are still making money.”

However, Dr John Taylor, assistant keeper at the British Museum, said that in 1972 the proceeds raised from the exhibition went on the conservation of the Philae temple complex, adding that he was “a little surprised” by Hawass’s claim. A spokeswoman for the museum confirmed that £654,474 went to Philae in the 1970s. Taylor said the request for the Rosetta Stone was “going through the formalities” and that the British Museum had “received a formal request which it is considering. We need a clear idea of the security arrangements.”

The exhibition contains artefacts of great splendour, most of which were not exhibited in London in 1972. However, visitors will not see the golden mask of the boy pharaoh, who died aged about 20 in roughly 1323 BC. That has been deemed too precious to travel. But there is much else to enjoy: the gilded coffinette used to store the pharoah’s viscera, which is inlaid with carnelian, obsidian and rock crystal; a gessoed wooden chest with decorative fretwork that could have been built yesterday. There are exquisite model boats with polychrome intact, and a lotus-shaped cup in buttery, translucent alabaster. There are beautifully carved shabtis (funerary figures) in wood, limestone and faïence; and a ceremonial shield depicting the pharaoh as a sphinx trampling some unfortunate Nubians.

However, some visitors may find the show’s loud accompaniment of “atmospheric”, choirs-of-heavenly-angels music off-putting. Nor is it clear yet how the public will respond to the O2 as an exhibition space, with its atmosphere bordering on that of an American mall. Tickets sold so far number 325,000; the organisers hope to attract a million visitors in total.

Highlights of the exhibition shop include a lifesize “mummy” that opens to reveal a set of CD shelves (£1,500), and a Tutankhamun tissue box where hankies are dispensed from the pharoah’s nostrils. Hawass’s many fans will also find versions of his Indiana Jones-style hat on sale, fetchingly modelled by the secretary general himself.


· Painted carved wooden torso of Tutankhamun covered in gesso and wearing crown with a cobra deity

· Statuettes of the king wearing crowns of Lower and Upper Egypt

· Falcon collar, from amuletic jewellery found on the king’s body

· Gilded coffin of Tjuya, buried with Yuya in the Valley of the Kings

· Serpent goddess, a graceful painted wooden sculpture

· Child’s chair with footrest, in ebony and ivory, with gold foil panels

· Is King Tut really worth the price of admission? Have your say on

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