Last Saturday, I was lucky enough to visit the British Museum’s latest blockbuster exhibition: Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds. A tale of two cities, it explores the underwater discovery of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, likely to have been founded in the 7th century BC but then submerged at the mouth of the river Nile by the 8th century BC.
I’ve never written a ‘review’ of a museum exhibition before, and even for an archaeologist it’s a difficult endeavour when you have to consider the various ways in which the artefacts on display could be interpreted, the expectations of visitors with different backgrounds and the nature of the specific exhibition space itself. In fact, I might even go so far to say that an archaeologist might not be best suited for reviewing Sunken Cities. It is without a doubt that the British Museum produces exhibitions with reference to specialist and technical knowledge from curators and archaeologists, however they are not the intended primary audience. The general public will ultimately signal the success of this exhibition by ‘voting with their feet’ and if the crowded spaces in Sunken Cities last Saturday is anything to go by, then it looks like the BM is on to a winner.
This exhibition has two magical elements: Egyptian artefacts and underwater adventures. You don’t need a degree in archaeology to find the prospect of those themes exciting. With the added advantage of being able to display in the British Museum’s Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery and the controversial clout of BP’s support, Sunken Cities was always going to draw attention. Its hype may have actually initially backfired on the British Museum; Green Peace timed their recent protest against BP’s sponsorship with the exhibition’s debut because they hoped it would steal its thunder. The seeming omnipresence of the BP logo in the British Museum’s marketing material for its major exhibitions has long left me feeling uneasy, though certainly not enough that I’ve ever stopped attending them. The truth is, being able to enjoy the marvels of an exhibition on the scale of Sunken Cities at the British Museum is a privilege that is enabled by the continued support of BP. I don’t wish to fully dive into the issue of BP’s sponsorship of the BM, as that would merit its own piece. Having acknowledged it, I would instead like to delve into the depths of Sunken Cities.
Hapy to meet you…
Sunken Cities may reach great depths in its demonstration of the potentials of underwater archaeology, but it definitely starts out on a high-5.4m high in fact! What I’m specifically referring to is a large granite statue of Hapy, the god of the annual flooding of the river Nile, which greets you when you first enter the exhibition. The irony, of course, is that Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus were submerged at the mouth of the river Nile. The inclusion of this grand statue at the entrance of the exhibition not only stuns visitors but also symbolises the capability of water to both support and destroy cities. This was one of my favourite parts of the exhibition, and I also especially liked the positioning of a large screen showing a short introductory film in front of it. Crowd-pleasers like Sunken Cities often suffer from bottlenecks at the beginning of exhibitions with visitors jostling to read introductory panels. The presentation of an introductory film, including underwater footage and 3D digital visualisations of the cities side-stepped this issue as it provided a natural funnelling of successive groups of people through the initial room and the screen was big enough that it didn’t matter if a large crowd had assembled. I was also pleased to see that the film included large, easily visible subtitles.
…but please Don’t Touch!
There are some wonderful artefacts in the exhibition (see this DigVentures piece which includes some of the best). Whilst I overheard many of the visitors happily commenting on them amongst themselves, some people didn’t seem too concerned about their welfare-I saw one man actually leaning on a pink granite garden vat from Thonis-Heracleion which dates from the 4th-2nd century BC. I was surprised to see that the exhibition did not seem to display any ‘Do Not Touch’ signs. Admittedly, the most fragile objects were in glass cases, but some invaluable finds from underwater archaeological investigation were easily accessible to wandering hands.
The ocean view
What really puts the Sunken Cities exhibition on another level is the presentation of photographs and in some cases even footage of specific artefacts being discovered next to the objects themselves. These visual resources provide context and also give an impression of the difficult conditions in which underwater archaeologists work. Looking at images of stone faces emerging from the depths is also undeniably spellbinding. This is a case in which the actual conditions under which the artefacts were found is just as fascinating as the ‘treasure’ itself.
The long view
The exhibition particularly focuses on the Ptolemaic rule of Egypt and cross-cultural interaction between Greek and Egyptian traditions. This theme of multiculturalism is also explored in the British Museum’s Sicily culture and conquest exhibition and I wonder if the choice to run these two concurrently at a time when ideas about Europe and cultural identity are being hotly contested is deliberate. If so, I have to say I’m rather impressed!
On another note, as a prehistorian I may be somewhat bias, but I would have liked to see some reference to the earlier cultural interactions between Greece and Egypt in the Bronze Age. Furthermore, it perhaps would have been helpful to situate some of the Egyptian cultural practises, such as animal mummification, within their wider historical context. I was glad that an entire section of the exhibition was devoted to explaining the Osiris myth and his relationship with Isis and Horus. Whilst I understand that this was probably a result of constraints on space and provided a link to the next section on the Mysteries of Osiris, I still found the placement of this section roughly halfway through Sunken Cities a bit jarring.
My greatest critique of Sunken Cities is that its name, in a way, is somewhat inappropriate. Though obviously the exhibition is indeed focused mainly on the two submerged cities, only a fraction of these settlements have been extensively archaeologically explored. It comes as no surprise, then, that it can only provide keyhole views of these urban landscapes, and even then mostly in terms of specific temples. Don’t get me wrong: in archaeology we usually have to extrapolate from limited evidence and the work already done on these sites is awe-inspiring, I just feel that Sunken Cities gives the impression that it deals with the full extent of these urban entities, which is misleading.
I don’t consider a star rating for a museum exhibition to be a particularly useful way of evaluating it. What I will say is that Sunken Cities excited and inspired me to ask questions enough that I left the British Museum not resenting the fact that I paid £16.50 for an adult ticket. Whilst I would have liked to see Sunken Cities reach further depths of the past by providing a wider historical overview and more fully acknowledging the limitations of the archaeological evidence available, it achieved that elusive element that many exhibitions have lacked: a sense of discovery.