Masterpiece 2022, ‘Avoiding Oblivion: the Preservation of Pharaonic Knowledge’

On the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, ‘Avoiding Oblivion: the Preservation of Pharaonic Knowledge’ revealed how our fascination with Ancient Egypt began centuries earlier. Masterpiece [Re]discovery invited visitors to engage with a prescient and powerful display that charts changing attitudes to preservation, the impact of time and the dynamic nature of originality. This exhibition was initiated by Philip Hewat-Jaboor and became a tribute to him.

Curated by Adam Lowe and Charlotte Skene Catling and designed by Skene Catling de la Peña, it embedded the plan of Tutankhamun’s tomb within a larger labyrinth that traces how Ancient Egypt has captured the public imagination for over five hundred years, from the Renaissance to the Romantics, through colonial discovery and scientific excavation to the future and virtual or augmented experience. The façade was Giovanni Piranesi’s Caffè degli Inglesi, an 18th century Egyptian architectural fantasy, originally created in Rome where travellers on the Grand Tour would meet. Cut-out windows revealed an animated journey through his Carceri, or ‘prisons of the mind’. Original objects and books such as Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica, originally printed in 1505, sat alongside Factum Foundation’s 21st-century technologies (specifically designed to record in the Theban Necropolis), Howard Carter’s carefully observed watercolours and Harry Burton’s vintage photographs (on loan from Rupert Wace) that captured the greatest archaeological discovery of our time.

Our knowledge of Ancient Egypt and the Theban Necropolis is founded on tombs that were built to last for eternity and survived for over 3,000 years. These profound monuments, The Book of the Dead and the Pharaonic approach to magical transformation and the cycle of life, remain enigmatic and captivating. Looking back at Egyptomania through the ages we see very different behaviours and attitudes. Displays included ‘Cannibalism in Europe in the 19th century’ illustrating the way Egyptian mummies were bought, sold and eaten, to ‘Squeezed to Death’, ‘Tomb Raiders’ and ‘Hacked Out and Sawn Off’ that detailed the destruction of the tombs by antiquarians and tourists alike.

Piranesi’s Caffé degli Inglesi and the Carceri video on the façade © César Liz Photography

Piranesi’s Caffé degli Inglesi and the Carceri video on the façade © César Liz Photography

The entrance to ‘Avoiding Oblivion’ © César Liz Photography

Cabinets in the façade hosted both original and facsimile books © César Liz Photography

Two facsimiles from the Tomb of Seti I flanked the entrance, much like their original locations within the tomb © César Liz Photography

© César Liz Photography

© César Liz Photography

© César Liz Photography

Digitally restored facsimile from the tomb of Seti I © César Liz Photography

Facsimile of the Celestial Cow from the Tomb of Seti I © César Liz Photography

Projection of the facsimile © César Liz Photography

© César Liz Photography

A facsimile of The Celestial Cow, otherwise known as The Myth of the Destruction of the Human Race, marked a turning point in the exhibition and signals the start of a different approach to looking, recording and preserving at this critical time in our collective history. It also led us to question what we – individually and collectively – are doing during our lives, and how we ourselves will be perceived and remembered after we are gone.

© César Liz Photography

Beginning the section about Howard Carter’s original watercolours on loan by Rupert Wace © César Liz Photography

Factum’s Cabinet of Curiosities © Cézar Liz Photography

A stark white space with the dimensions of Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus chamber contained an experiment in virtual display that allowed visitors to look through the eyes of others. Through the Theban Necropolis Preservation Initiative (TNPI), Factum Foundation has been working alongside the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in the Valley of the Kings for over twenty years, rethinking preservation, stewardship, access and training, and demonstrating how digital data can enable positive change. While technology is usually seen as a force shaping the future, Factum uses it to look deep into the past.

This innovative installation for Masterpiece [Re]discovery encouraged visitors to understand the complexity of history in new ways and to challenge our own point of view and the limits of understanding.

The space exhibiting Harry Burton’s pictures and the balcony leading to the white space © César Liz Photography

51 vintage prints of Harry Burton’s photographs, on loan by Rupert Wace, were on show © César Liz Photography

Section about Factum’s work in the Tomb of Tutankhamun © César Liz Photography

© César Liz Photography

Exiting the exhibition © César Liz Photography

Cinema room about making and rematerialising data © César Liz Photography

Listen to the Apollo Magazine podcast about Avoiding Oblivion