22 February 2010

30 years' wait over


When I was eight years old, the King Tutankhamun exhibit came to Toronto. It was a big deal. It was the only Canadian stop on the exhibition's North American tour.

I didn't get to go. My best friends in Grade 3 did, but I didn't. So I got to hear about the exhibit, got a book about it as a Christmas gift from an aunt who took herself and said I would have been too little (did I mention my best friends at school went?), got a tin full of death-mask shaped Laura Secord chocolates. I still have the tin and the book. But I was furious that I didn't get to go. Too little? I was a year younger and yet almost half a head taller than most of the other kids in my class.

Funny how things continue to bug you when you think it's little-kid stuff you got over ages ago. As soon as the AGO announced that King Tut was coming back to Canada, I immediately started to try to press-gang various friends and family members into going. I was not going to miss it this time!

The problem with friends and family members is that they don't always have the same bucket list you do. In the end, no-one really wanted to go.

And then I mentioned to my friend Page that I was taking myself to the Tut exhibit. I had even bought an AGO membership so I could guarantee I would get a ticket. The ever-cool Page and her husband MG said they wanted to see it with me. So I had company (and excellent company at that) after all.

The time slot I had picked was Saturday morning, at the opening of the gallery for the day. I baked scones the night before, walked up to Page's & MG's house, and contributed the scones to breakfast (they already had fruit, yogourt, and tea, glorious tea). After eating we hit the subway and were just about awake by the time we got to the gallery.

AGO staff seem to be pretty level-headed and courteous most of the time, but the morning we saw Tut they were great. I had my membership card out to show that the member's ticket I had printed off did indeed belong to me, and they let me go into a special member's-only line. When I said I was worried about losing my friends (in the much longer non-member's line), they let Page & MG join me. Membership does have its privileges. We were the first ones in.

The first half of the exhibit tried to place the Tut artifacts in the larger context of what was going on with ancient Egyptian society, religion, and art. For the first time ever (and I've seen a number of exhibits about ancient Egypt at this point in my life) I could appreciate how the artwork changed, and how realistically (or not) faces were depicted. As usual with ancient Egyptian work, I was in awe of the artisanship that had gone into crafting each piece. Some of the work was unfinished, and it was wonderful to see the rough sketches that were the start of such a formal style of artwork.

The actual King Tut part of the exhibit was laid out like the real-life tomb in the Valley of the Kings. It included archival newsreels of the tomb's discovery — the film that ended with a man wearing a boater discovering he was on-camera and giving the lens a big bow and tip of his hat really touched me for some reason —plus of course lots of artifacts and information about them. This is the first exhibit I've seen which included flat-screen monitors above the display cases showing 3D animation of the artifact in context and additional explanatory text, which I appreciated.

When we were finally done with seeing, reading, and examining everything, we went to the pub across the road from the gallery and had an early lunch. I said that the decor of the pub wasn't really all that different from the pieces we had just seen — it was just mass-produced instead of being crafted by hand. Page has a degree in expressive art therapy, and she said that people stay the same: we keep liking symmetry, we keep being attracted to shiny things. I think that's what attracts me to ancient Egyptian art: it doesn't take much to make it look like it belongs with right now.

A 30-year wait for artifacts 3,000 years old: it doesn't matter. The relevance and the impact stay the same.

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