Clay troops and boy king's jewels outdo West End's shows

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2007, 12:00am


It's only 9am, but the queue already snakes through the courtyard of the British Museum, out of the stucco stone and iron gates and along the wide York-stone pavement of Great Russell Street. And it's a Sunday.

What's on, I ask? The Terracotta Warriors, an incredulous-looking Dutchman replies, as if I've had my head stuck in the sand for two months on Mars.

Of course I should have known. London has been crazy for all things archaeology of late. The newspapers are full of columnists fawning over the 20-odd warriors and the opening last week of Tutankhamun at the O2 centre, formerly the Millennium Dome down river at Greenwich.

Judging by the title, Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, the gaudy adverts for which dominate the back pages of magazines, where once stood only West End stage shows, you would think a blockbuster musical had rolled into town.

But it seems museum exhibitions are the new musicals.

The British Museum expects some 800,000 people - twice the figure originally expected - to pop in for a peep at selected parts of the First Emperor's magnificent 2,200-year-old burial site between now and April.

All advance tickets have been snapped up, with only 500 left for sale each day, hence the queues, usually starting by 7.30am. The museum is now pondering 24-hour opening to fit everyone in.

The Tutankhamun display expects to attract even more visitors, more than a million in total.

Perhaps Tutankhamun's dominance at the box office is to be expected.

After all, Howard Carter dug right into the untouched Egyptian tomb in 1922 and extracted a wealth of gold artefacts that light up the imagination.

Tutankhamun is treasure compared to the simple, though majestic, art of the warriors. And golden treasure always focuses the mind more than fired earth.

The exhibitions have divided Londoners, however.

Tutankhamun is seen as a tad arriviste, berated as being held in an out-of-town shopping mall or multiplex cinema, which the O2 resembles at the best of times.

Some have criticised what they say is the corporate-style presentation.

You can even buy a life-size sarcophagus which opens out into a CD rack. Price? GBP1,500 (HK$24,100).

There's nothing quite so tacky at The First Emperor, which sits in the venerable British Museum, in central London, in the old reading room, above the desk on which Karl Marx once wrote Das Kapital. It was also home to the somewhat more scholarly 1972 exhibition of the pharaoh's treasures that drew a record 1.7 million visitors.

That display, 35 years ago, is seen as the start of the blockbuster museum display, laying the template for international archaeological events ever since.

This year's display has been cheekily described as Tutankhamun II - a sort of cheaper remake, with fewer stars and less of a plot.

Certainly in 1972, however, the exhibition hosted the boy king's fabled mask, Egyptian antiquity's crown jewel, but which has been deemed too delicate to travel from the Cairo Museum this time. Organisers have never pretended to be displaying the mask, although some point out the exhibition has used some magnified images of the mask in publicity shots.

Few people feel conned, however, prompting many to discuss the enduring British affection for Egyptology.

Experts put it down to Nelson's defeat of Napoleon off Egypt in 1802, the booty of which included the Rosetta Stone, the tablet which allowed scholars to decipher hieroglyphics, prompting a 19th-century craze for archaeology.

Many Egyptians feel this love affair led to large-scale pillaging, with Carter's fabled find perhaps the best example.

Egypt was in Britain's imperial grasp and museum staff point out someone is always popping in to see if their heirlooms that soldierly grandfathers pocketed in Egypt are valuable. Probably, although not as big a money-spinner as the Tutankhamun CD rack.