Sunday, February 27, 2011

Review: Tutankhamun - His Tomb and His Treasures

As you've no doubt noticed from the advertising on Dublin Bus buses, a new exhibition called Tutankhamun: His Tomb and His Treasures started recently in the RDS.

Before I get into the details, let's start with the most important points. Firstly, this exhibition is worth a visit, provided that you're comfortable with the price and that you plan ahead and pre-book instead of just showing up. Tickets vary from €8 for a child from Monday to Friday to €18 for an adult at the weekend. I think the exhibition is worth this, but one of the people I was with reckoned the Chester Beatty Library (with free admission) is better. I think that's more an indication of how good the Library is than a suggestion not to visit Tutankhamun.

The exhibition claims to offer a new and different approach to showing history, and in this it is undoubtedly correct. It uses replicas rather than real ancient artifacts, and while this does reduce the emotional impact of the items it allows the exhibition designers to present the material in ways that simply wouldn't be possible in a traditional museum-style exhibition.

A very convincing replica of King Tut's deathmask

The official website ( does a decent job of justifying the use of replicas. Some of the real items have been taken on tour before - most notably to the US during the cold war period - but this is increasingly rare, and the number of items in an exhibition of the original pieces would be in the dozens. In the RDS, there are over 1,000 items. To my (admittedly inexpert) eyes they looked entirely convincing; if I hadn't known they were replicas, I wouldn't have spotted it just by looking.

As you enter the exhibition you'll be handed an audio guide. At various points along the way as you walk through the exhibition you'll see numbered signs, with the numbers corresponding to entries on the guide. I quite liked the guide - the material was pitched at the right level, neither too detailed nor superficial. As a bonus, the female Egyptologist doing part of the voiceover has a really nice voice.

The initial introductory material is rather oddly presented. At the very start of your tour you'll go past a wall covered in pictures and writing detailing Egypt's ancient history. Sounds like a fine idea, but the layout is confusing, and it's a surprisingly dry start to an otherwise very visual, hands-on experience.

Next up is an introductory video. Like the audio guide this is good and gets the right balance between introducing you to the world of Pharaoh Tutankhamun and avoiding too much detail. After this you'll file into another room, sit down, and watch a second video. This one is really the key to the way the exhibition presents the material - it's about Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. Carter is then used as a sort of narrator in audio clips throughout the rest of the exhibition.

The first replicas you'll pass by are a presentation of the layout of the tomb as Carter found it. This is the exhibition's strong point: they've been able to lay out the items in a way you simply couldn't with the originals. Lighting is used to highlight individual artifacts as they're discussed, and you'll be helpfully shepherded along through a series of these dioramas, each revealing another stage of the tomb's exploration.

Coffin shrines

After that you'll reach one of the most visually striking parts of the experience, a series of very impressively decorated coffin shrines followed by a set of even more magnificently detailed coffins. Like Russian dolls they would have been layered one inside the other. It's fascinating to think that the sceptre and the shepherd's crook have been used as insignia of authority for millenia, right up to and including the modern day.

You'll then reach the main hall of the exhibition. At this point there are a large number of collections of related items to read about, hear about, look at and indeed touch. That's a nice aspect of this display - as everything is a replica, it's mostly OK to touch the items and to photograph them. (Flash isn't allowed.) The children at the exhibition seemed to quite appreciate this tactile approach.

It would be easy to rush through the main hall and finish the tour quickly. Don't - take a little time and appreciate the items. Despite being replicas, they really are extremely detailed.

The exhibition ends with what I imagine would be an important part of any authentic Egyptian experience, an expensive souvenir shop. And speaking of authentic Egyptian experiences, it's worth noting that even in Egypt itself they sometimes use replicas as a way to introduce tourists to Egyptian history.

This is a very novel and visually beautiful exhibition. Perhaps the best thing I can say for it is that I left the RDS wanting to learn more about Egypt's (mind-bogglingly long) history. The exhibition isn't a "must see", but I enjoyed it and if the price doesn't put you off I'd recommend scheduling a visit.


  1. I'm definitely heading to the RDS after reading your review.

  2. How long would you say you'd spend in the RDS? I'm thinking of bring a bunch of 11 year olds, would you recommend it for them?

  3. @Anonymous

    We spent about 2 hours there but you could do it in maybe 30 mins less than that. We didn't have any kids with us, so I don't know what the kids audio guide is like.

  4. @Anonymous

    Just a point to add to Claire's comment, and that's that when you have the headphones on it's easy to lose track of other people. So you'll need to be well organised and sharp-eyed to keep watch on a group of 11 year olds!

    Some kids might find it a little slow... really depends on the group I suppose.

    I don't want to put you off though - I did enjoy the exhibition.

  5. Thanks for your comments, i hope the kids like it. We'll probably spend an hour 1/2 there, so it won't be as slow.

  6. Was so looking forward to seeing it, but i have to say I was a bit disappointed! €42 including parking for the 2 of us and i think we were there a little over an hour.