Book of the dead dull: against blockbuster exhibitions

A new British Museum exhibition opens this week and it’s already a guaranteed success. But that doesn’t mean it’s any good.

I went to the press view of the Egyptian Book Of The Dead and afterwards felt much the same as I do after every British Museum exhibition: overwhelmed and underimpressed. But I knew that all the big reviewers would give it a knee-jerk five stars – and sure, enough, before I’d even got home, the first suitably awestruck review was in. Meh.

So why was I so bored, and am I on my own with this? Well, the exhibits are undoubtedly important and fascinating – papyrus and artefacts taken from Egyptian tombs, many dating back more than 3,000 years, which together tell the story of the Egyptian belief in the afterlife. But, gawd, ain’t there a lot of it? And why does the exhibition space look so bloody boring?

 

The British Museum has an incredible talent at taking something potentially fascinating and kicking all the life out of it through stuffy, unimaginative presentation and a conviction that more is better – and getting away with it every time. 

At Book Of The Dead we get acres – and I really mean acres – of stuffy captions and endless cases containing aged papyrus covered in hieroglyphs, with only the odd gaudy mummy case by way of variation. After seeing the first room, I felt I’d seen it all and would have had a more enjoyable experience sitting down with a cup of a tea and reading a good book on the subject. But I still had another dozen rooms to trudge round. Exhibitions are meant to bring a topic to life, but this was deadening. And I was lucky enough to be there when it was relatively empty – for the average punter, it must be chaos.

I’m not sure I’m entirely out on my own here – on my way into the exhibition I bumped into a friend coming out, and he said much the same thing, as did Time Out Art on Twitter. But the British Museum’s methods clearly convince most of the reviewers and they certainly draw the crowds; these are, after all, two of the constituents museums most need to impress. 

As a lover of museums, though, I cannot help feel that the BM is doing the art of exhibitions a disservice. There is none of the thoughtful wit of the Imperial War Museum, or the layered smarts of the Wellcome Collection, or the sheer intellectual depth of the British Library, all three of whom have new exhibitions opening next week that will not get anything like the attention of the BM.

The British Museum make museum-going into something worthy rather than fun. My fear is that thousands of people will push through heaving crowds to see this exhibition drawn by fawning publicity and out of a sense of duty, before emerging battered and bored, vowing to never visit another museum until the next blockbuster rolls into town. That really would be a shame.

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6 responses to “Book of the dead dull: against blockbuster exhibitions

  1. Didnt you like the animations? And that amazing papyrus field at the end. Swaying light above a book of the dead that went on for ever… And the fact that they painted their spells on everything, and the scribes often made mistakes which were not noticed by the patron. And snakes with legs, and the AGE of the stuff. Except the one panel which was a facsimile.
    I agree its very big and the way I survive such exhibitions is to walk fairly swiftly through, soaking up the atmosphere (which the V&A is so good at) and pausing occasionally and randomly to look more carefully at details. (obvious from this comment)

  2. It wasn’t bad, just boring: samey, over-written captions and a bit complacent. I did like the idea of a ‘chaos snake’ though. It certainly wasn’t worth five stars and definitely not worth £12.

  3. Pingback: Gertcha to the British Library, for Viz, Austen and Evolving English | The Great Wen

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  5. Animations? And that amazing papyrus field at the end? Afraid now that I missed something.
    There were a couple of displays with a screen that slowly followed a section of the BOD highlighting and explaining as it went across. Is that it? Does provide food for thought – would animations help future exhibits get over “boring: samey, over-written captions and complacency?” Docudrama on the History Channel (USA) in 2005 called The Egyptian Book of the Dead, makes for fascinating viewing, full of animation though it does trivialize a great deal.

  6. Ol Rappaport

    I was enchanted, as were my two companions. Unless you’re an egyptologist it’s a big alien subject and you have to do a lot of preparatory work to understand it and take it in. By the time I was in the last room looking at that great long papyrus I was entranced, I could recognise the major pieces of symbolism I understood the context and it didn’t seems as alien as it had at the beginning. Like so many of us the Ancient Egyptians looked forward to a life beyond the grave where generosity and justice were recognised and rewarded. Though the iconography could be opaque at times, the underlying inspirations and aspirations are timeless and so are contemporary

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