British Museum's show including objects on display for first time sheds new light on ancient beliefs
Posters for a new show at the British Museum cheerfully posed the question: what happens after death? Visitors may hope it's a bit less stressful than the perilous journey depicted in the museum, taking them through a dark, terrifying underworld populated by vigilant baboons, an Ibis god called Thoth and crocodile-headed devourers who threaten to eat the damned.
The images are part of a landmark exhibition opening on Thursday which explores in more detail than ever before the ancient Egyptian beliefs revealed in the Book of the Dead, an illustrated map for the afterlife, promising to guide the spirits of the deceased rich through the spells and challenges necessary to achieve – or so they hoped – eternal life.
The British Museum has an unrivalled collection of the Book of the Dead papyri, but many of the documents have never been on public display, not least because they are so fragile. "This is an extremely ambitious exhibition because we've never been able to look at this subject in such a comprehensive way," said curator John Taylor. "We've wanted to, but so much of this material is so light-sensitive. It's also a question of space – you do need a lot of it to do it properly."
The "books'' were used for something like 1,500 years between around 1600BC and 100AD. Taylor said they had to make some tough choices on what could and could not be shown. "There are some, still, that we would love to put on show but they have pigments that are so sensitive that exposure for a couple of months would damage them. The colours would fade."
One of the wow moments in the exhibition is the display of the world's longest Book of the Dead, the Greenfield Papyrus, which until now has never been displayed in its entirety. Until March, all 37 metres – 96 plates – are on show for the first time.
At the first view yesterday there was a reverential hush in the dimly-lit galleries – people whispered to each other. But the visitors were all adults and given that the museum expects a mighty lot of mummy-fascinated children, the noise levels could all change from today.
Taylor believes visitors can learn a lot. "We've shown how much the Egyptians planned for the afterlife; how much they tried to impose control over what was unknown to them. So you learn a lot about human psyche, I think. There are lots of things here that we all recognise as fears and hopes and it's interesting to see how they dealt with them – and it's sometimes not that differently to the way we do."
Taylor said that staging the exhibition had led to discoveries. "We've had the chance to really scrutinise some of these documents very, very closely and the fact we can put some of them back together in their entirety – we've never had the chance or the space to do that. "So we've been able to study the changing artistic style on one Book of the Dead, the fact that there was more than one artist. It's much easier to compare the styles when you have it all lined up."
Infra-red photography has also revealed the painted out name of one document owner. "We don't know why it was painted out. One possibility is that his family didn't pay for it so the scribes said we'll use it for someone else, but never got round to it. It could also have been an attack on this man's memory. The Egyptians did this type of thing. There is lots still to learn because these documents have been scattered all over the world for 200 years." There were no rules on who could have a book, but they were expensive. "If you could afford it, you would have one. If not, you'd have to make your journey to the afterlife on your own native wit," said Taylor.
The show also has a striking display of coffins, amulets, tomb figurines, gilded masks and mummy effects with loans from museums in Paris, Boston and Leiden.
Given that ancient Egyptians are now studied at key stage 2 in schools, the museum is opening just for school visits at certain times and holding a free teachers' private view. It has also, for the first time, produced a separate family multi-media guide in addition to the adult one.
Brown, Mark. 2010. "Egyptian Book of the Dead exhibition reveals secrets of lost civilisation". Guardian. Posted: November 2, 2010. Available online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2010/nov/02/egyptian-book-dead-exhibition