MUSEUMS

A glimpse of ancient Egypt’s glory

Bruce Wallace July 1 1985
MUSEUMS

A glimpse of ancient Egypt’s glory

Bruce Wallace July 1 1985

A glimpse of ancient Egypt’s glory

MUSEUMS

Bruce Wallace

Historians have described him as a monumental egotist and a clever politician who dominated the social, cultural and political life of the Egyptian empire that he ruled more than 3,200 years ago. For 67 years —from 1290 to 1224 BC—Ramses II fought, built and loved his way through one of the greatest periods of ancient Egypt. Now, for the first time in North America, a comprehensive exhibit of unique artifacts from the days of his reign—put together from Cairo’s Egyptian Museum collection—is on show in Montreal. Called The Great Pharaoh Ramses II and His Time, the exhibit offers a rare glimpse into the daily lives of ancient Egyptians. Organizers predict that it will attract 600,000 visitors during its four-month stay, more than are expected to see Montreal’s other summer blockbuster, the Pablo Picasso exhibition (page 60). Said Michel Guay, a historian and Egyptology specialist at the Université du Québec à Montréal, who wrote the audio guide for the exhibition: “Ramses is a mass exhibition that will force us to re-evaluate our definition of what constitutes popular culture.”

Indeed, 78,000 people viewed the exhibition during its first 13 days, and organizers say that they have already sold more than 200,000 tickets at $4.50 each. In that, the exhibition represents another personal coup for Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau. The mayor overcame the Egyptian government’s reluctance to allow its treasures to travel by agreeing to pay the estimated $250,000 packing, shipping, security and insurance costs and by pledging to turn all profits from the exhibition over to the Egyptian Antiquities Organization of Cairo. After the show closes in Montreal on Sept. 29 it will move on to Expo 86 in Vancouver, with those costs shared by both cities. Said Mohamed Saleh, director-general of the Egyptian Museum: “We think Ramses II will raise $1 million during its Canadian stay, which will help us to build two new national museums.”

By Egyptian standards, the Montreal exhibition is small. Only 69 artifacts are on display over two floors of the Palais de Civilisation on lie Notre Dame, formerly Expo 67’s French pavilion. And visitors will not see Ramses Ii’s mummified remains, which are too fragile to be moved from Cairo. But the displays—including 20-lb. golden necklaces, a workman’s limestone level and the world’s first known water clock—show a different side of Egyptian life than many North Americans saw in the famous Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibit which toured the continent from 1976 through 1979. Nicholas Millet, curator of the Egyptian department at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, said the show is “a worthy sequel to Tutankhamun." He added: “Tut was a flashy, gaudy show featuring purely funerary material from the only untouched tomb of a pharaoh ever found. But as a ruler, Ramses II holds a greater place in Egyptian history, and the artifacts on display in Montreal were from Egyptian public life, made to be seen by living people.” Indeed, the image of Ramses lí dominates the exhibition. The third pharaoh of Egypt’s 19th dynasty was an accomplished politician and an ambitious builder who ordered hundreds of monuments constructed to himself and to his eight known Great Royal Wives and numerous concubines, with whom he is said to have fathered as many as 150 children. In addition to an eight-foottall pink granite colossus, the likenesses of Ramses lí on display include a black granite statue of the pharaoh as a child, a bust and the painted wooden sarcophagus in which his body was re-entombed in 970 BC by priests, about a century after grave robbers looted his original tomb 150 years after his death.

The Montreal show is the second time the Ramses II treasures have left Egypt. In 1976, 1.2 million visitors viewed a similar show in Paris, curated by Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, an Egyptologist at the Louvre who is also serving as scientific adviser for the Montreal exhibit. A curator and a restorer from the Egyptian Antiquities Organization will also stay in Montreal all summer to oversee the exhibit. For them the risks are outweighed by the need to generate revenue to preserve already discovered artifacts and protect the enormous volume of treasures still buried in their soil. Traditionally, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has been a key financial supporter of the more than 80 active excavation sites in Egypt. But the U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO in December,

1984, because of its antiWestern bias and bad management, and the possible withdrawal of Britain, Japan, Canada and other nations, has made it essential to find

new sources of financing. Declared Saleh: “Old, secure sources of funding are becoming exhausted. I think we should focus on preserving what has already been discovered and leave the rest protected, as it is, underground.”

For his part, Drapeau says he is determined that the Ramses n exhibit will be the first of several annual art exhibitions in Montreal. During a May trip to China, Drapeau secured an agreement in principle to bring a similar exhibition to the Palais site next year, and he is also negotiating to bring an exhibit from Bulgaria called Treasures of Thrace the following year. With the Ramses II exhibition, the hugely successful international fireworks competition, the Picasso show, the Montreal International Jazz Festival and the World Film Festival this summer, the mayor is riding a crest of international attention unmatched since the 1976 Olympics —prominence that Ramses lí himself would have appreciated.^