Thirty numbered boards give you themed sections by which to navigate through the rooms. The Ashmolean sometimes has two exhibitions on at a time. This one, however, stretches right over the space, giving lots of room to lay out the hoards of documents from the Griffith Institute open to public view.
If you're expecting lots of antique gold and other treasure, then you'll be disappointed. This exhibition is much more subtle, but just as exciting. As the name (Discovering Tutankhamun)suggests, it takes you through what it takes to make a discovery as monumental as that of Tutankhamun's tomb, and how those involved, and the rest of the world, dealt with it.
You walk in over the walkway across the halls below, with a photograph of the masses waiting for entry to the tomb to your side. The echoed queues are a neat mirroring. As much as the exhibition enlightens you about the process of discovering Tutankhamun, it also challenges you to reflect on your own role as an exhibition-goer, as a cultural tourist.
The History of Photography: Harry Burton meticulously photographed every item taken out of the tomb, as well as the general scene at various points. Glass slides are available to look at, with a clear explanation of how an upside down, reverse negative was used. This is one end of the technological spectrum. He tried to make colour work, but it wouldn't, so Carter went back and annotated / coloured in the pictures. At the other end of the spectrum, the final room explains how new facsimiles of the paintings have been made, on flexible sheets, to recreate the tomb in a new setting and thus preserve the original.
The gold mask is everywhere, including a replica in the museum, challenging us to think about stereotypical images
The History of Archaeology: Lord Canarvon (resident of Highclere Castle, the real Downton Abbey) was about to give up digging in the Valley of the Kings when Howard Carter made his discovery. Archaeology based on private money, long journeys, hunches, detailed, methodical research, anecdote, hard-fought permits and sheet luck; archaeology as an evolving science, where recording and preserving items was finally viewed as sufficiently important to merit years of attention. The exhibition shows how Tutankhamun's discovery changed the face of what archaeology could do. Objects were recorded, drawn, photographed, and mapped, giving archaeologists unparalleled data to work with. 5398 objects were taken from the tomb, with 3780 still not properly studied. The exhibition helps you realise how much more we have to learn, keeps us a part of the story.
Public perception of Egypt: whether it is problems with the Egyptian government, or unexpected press exclusives riling competitors, the exhibition explains the political impact of the tomb. It also charts the social impact, with board games and music, jewellery and clothes, demonstrating how influential the finds were on the developing 1920s Art Deco style.
A letter from one Luke Mahon gives you a sense of how quickly Howard Carter became known. 'With best wishes for your great discovery. I'm wishing I was an Egyptolisty [sic] like you. I am 6 now, praps I will be one when I am grown up. I love all about Tutenhamen [sic].'
In another spot, there's even a joke:
Q: How do you use an Egyptian doorbell?
A: Toot An Kum In
A gentle murmur of suppressed chortles emanates from the corner of the room where this joke from 1923 is displayed.
A new ticket booth at the base of the stairs up, manned by very friendly staff.
Striking, amusing and thought-provoking, with original stone steles from c.1345BC to water colour drawings of the finery - this exhibition has it all. It has been really well thought through for all the family. Coloured bubbles punctuate the walls giving children things to think about and objects to find. There are usually several suggestions, letting kids run back and forth and gain in excitement. A children's worksheet is also available to help entertain them.
The Ashmolean's neo-classical front, advertising its classical contents!
Photographs are not allowed in the exhibition itself. Tickets can be bought online or in person. There is a lift to the exhibition. The Ashmolean does not have parking, but is a short walk from bus or train stops in Oxford.