The SCA’s project to secure funding through high profile exhibitions has courted a degree of controversy in the world, and in so doing has certainly met another of it’s aims, of raising the profile of Egyptian antiquities world wide. They have also generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the SCA and Egypt as a whole.
To the critics, who have decried the measure as being too risky, the SCA has replied that such exhibitions have been carried out for a long time, and are nothing new. That is undeniably true. My adopted home city of London has indeed been graced by the treasures of Tutankhamun in 1972, attracting more visitors to the British Museum than any other exhibition in it’s history.
Whilst we can point to tradition as justification for our current actions, we must not be blind to the situation around us. In the 1970′s awareness of risks of transporting antiquities was much lower than at present, as was the importance of the then much less matured art of conservation. The SCA itself now follows a different process to that of the 1972 exhibition -only “secondary” antiquities now travel, hence the absence of objects such as the mummy mask of Tutankhamum from the current travelling exhibitions. Clearly the SCA is aware of the risks. It seems, therefore, to be the degree of risk that is the issue, not the idea of exposing antiquities to un-necessary risk per se. In addition, ethical matters, such as the display of mummies and the jewels taken from them, was much less prominent than it is today.
At the end of the day, this is the crux of the matter. These artefacts do not have to travel, and be exposed to the associated risks and ethical dilemmas. It is a decision consciously taken. Why? The SCA gives two reasons.
To raise awareness of Egyptian antiquities globally
To raise finance for SCA projects
As for the first, the SCA has also famously forged an alliance with the media, in particular the American television network “Discovery Channel” which has resulted in numerous documentaries being produced, often for special, highly choreographed events, such as the famous (or perhaps infamous) Hatshepsut documentary that one commentator likened to an episode of CSI, and many others, including myself (on a personal level) felt the documentaries to be highly disrespectful of Ancient Egyptian culture and it’s values. One is forced to question the value of interest generated by appealing to the lowest common denominator, which is what these documentaries undeniably have done, and to the image of Ancient Egypt in generates in the popular imagination, appealing to the lowest common denominator of mummies, “mysteries” and more.
The SCA has complimented the documentary approach with the exhibitions. As far as PR goes, these have been somewhat more successful. Whilst documentary TV can fall flat, Ancient Egyptian PR rarely failed to hit the spot, and still does the job. The artefacts in the various exhibitions that have travelled the world in recent years have all drawn in the crowds, despite controversially high ticket prices. The exhibitions that I have seen have been less tacky and sensationalist than they could have been, and, well depressingly far from perfect, do give a hint of the genuine history and interest behind the treasures. It’s fair to say that the exhibitions have been, to a degree, a success (though not an unqualified one) in this stated aim of raising interest. They do, however, also raise a serious ethical issue, which I shall return to.
The second objective of the exhibitions has been to raise revenue:
“Over the past five years, Hawass told Al-Ahram Weekly, the SCA has earned almost $350 million from 23 exhibitions sent abroad. This falls within the framework of the policy developed by the SCA to sending archaeological exhibitions abroad and at the same time give Egypt added worldwide publicity” (Al-Ahram Weekly – Banking on King Tut – Nevine El Aref)
OK. Let’s do a little maths. $350m from 23 exhibitions makes $15.2m per exhibition. The annual income would be $70m p/a. Now this may sound like a lot of money, but as Hawass himself said in the article just quoted, “This money is not even a drop of water in the bucket of cash needed to build this museum…It is costing billions of dollars” he is quoted as saying, referring to the Grand Egyptian Museum.
Nor is it much compared to the investment needs of any number issues the SCA is facing in Egypt. The groundwater management scheme at Luxor Temple has proven successful, and so there are any number of temples where this scheme now seems a sensible way forward to managing the ever present water table issue, Karnak being only the most high profile of them. Projects like this are capital intensive, and although Luxor Temple was financed for the most part by foreign donations, this source is not endless. In addition there are everyday needs that make a small but steady demand on overstretched resources. If the money from these exhibitions pales by comparison to the capital demands of the GEM, it practically disappears when compared with the demands of Pharaonic antiquities overall.
Whilst one could say every little helps, the enormous risks entailed in these exhibitions still overshadows the financial return, and even moreso when one considers the financial return is nowhere near adequate. The Golden Age of the Pharaohs attracted much publicity because it was the first in a long time in London, and also in the States. However subsequent exhibitions are attracting less publicity. It would be possible to make the public tire even of Tutankhamun, and would lead to pressure to send increasingly valuable artefacts to the exhibitions to keep up attendance.
In the end, it is a close call. The publicity of the exhibitions, not the documentaries, has been somewhat beneficial. The money is beneficial also, though perhaps less so than it might at first seem, given the drop in the ocean factor, and this is assuming that the money from these exhibitions is in fact going to the SCA and not on other projects, and that’s a big if. But, the risk involved is massive, and this cannot be ignored or denied. The SCA has gone to great length to point out the care taken in transporting the artefacts, and the full insurance coverage provided. But how can you insure these things? Let us consider the unthinkable for one moment. Let us suppose that the diadem taken from the head of Tutankhamun’s mummy was destroyed. Let us assume the SCA had insured this for $20m. That will not bring it back. It may allow us to make a perfect replica, but it doesn’t actually help recover anything, because you cannot recover these things. Once they are destroyed, they are destroyed “forever and eternity”.
In addition to this, one must not forget the image generated of Pharaonic culture by these exhibitions, and the treatment of these artefacts. Whilst some, like the Tutankhamun & The Golden Age Of The Pharaohs exhibition has been reasonably respectful, a lot of people, myself included, are turned off by the idea of such exhibitions as “prostituting” Pharaonic culture, and demeaning both the people and the culture to the status of fairground attractions. Financial calculations aside, this leave a foul taste in many people’s mouths. This should not be underestimated, specially given the sensitive issue of some exhibits displayed, such as the diadem of Tutankhamun, removed from his head. Undeniably beautiful, a masterpeiece of craftsmanship, one has to do some very serious soul searching when confronted with this piece behind glass.
It, like the famous golden dagger, were removed from his body and displayed to the public. We must not forget what we have done, not in the name of being able to better understand Ancient Egyptian culture, religion or society, but to put on a display of treasure. Maybe we are not the ones who removed them, but by displaying them we are furthering this action, and we must ask ourselves where we stand on this issue.
When I first looked into this, I thought that it would be an “open and shut” case. We cannot justify letting these treasures be exposed to any unnecessary risk. End of. I still do feel that we should not take this risk, and I still feel it is unnecessary. We should keep them secure (in all senses of the word) and bring people to the antiquities and not vice versa. However it is not as simple as I first believed.
The arguments the SCA has put forward are real issues. The money is a drop in the ocean, but where else will that drop come from? Nowhere, most likely. None of this justifies moving these treasures and jetting them around the world. But it does mean it is not an open and closed case. There are reasonable arguments to be considered, and not simply dismissed out of hand.
However, in the end, the risks are still too great, and the ethical questions too thorny… and there is nothing on earth we can do to change that. I cannot agree with the idea of exposing these irreplaceable items to this risk of transport and display, and I cannot ethically justify the display of items taken from a mummy. We understand the mores of Pharaonic culture, and we cannot pretend to be ignorant of how this would be considered by the people we are claiming to be showing the greatest respect and understanding. As well as being practically unwise, at the end of the day, we know it’s wrong.