London's Tutankhamun Exhibition Is Enrapturing Despite A King's Ransom Of An Entry Fee

Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh, Saatchi Gallery ★★★★☆

London's Tutankhamun Exhibition Is Enrapturing Despite A King's Ransom Of An Entry Fee Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh, Saatchi Gallery 4
Gold inlaid canopic coffinette of Tutankhamun. Image: Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo, Italy

Like Howard Carter on that fateful November day in 1922, you have to pull away the obstructing rocks and brush away the detritus to get at the glimmering treasure inside Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh.

Sweep to one side the dubious flagship positioning of King Tut's flaxen face on all the promo materials, which many will presume is the world-renowned death mask or sarcophagus, but is in fact a zoomed-in shot of a miniature canopic coffin. The muzak piped into each room with all the decorum of a three-star hotel lobby. (At least they've despatched with the fake pillars bemoaned by Jonathan Jones in a withering write-up from the last time the Boy King was in town.) The fact Saatchi Gallery's exhibition holds 'just' 150 of the treasures discovered after a tip-off from a water boy, while more than 5,000 stay put in Egypt. That king's ransom of an entry fee.

Gilded Wooden shrine with scenes of Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun. Image: IMG

Of course, the last of these won't be possible for many and has rightly come under scrutiny. It will force families to think hard about forking out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — not how these things should be.

If you do bite the financial bullet, you will quickly fall under the spell of what remains the most significant archaeological discovery of all time. The objects are so dazzling, so all-consuming, that all curatorial niggles melt away. "This can't be real," is our first thought; a life-size statue of the pharaoh looks forward intently with such crisp golden eyes, it should be a relic from the 1920s explosion of Tutmania, not the actual thing that inspired it. An Egyptian crook and flail — the only pair ever discovered — are so uncannily resplendent, so Saran Wrap fresh, they could be stage props for Aida. You might come out sore from pinching yourself.

A figure of Tutankhamun on a skiff, throwing a harpoon. Image: IMG

Exquisite detail in each exhibit tells you all you need to know about the artisanal nous of the ancient Egyptians; a penholder is just as enrapturing as a towering colossus which once guarded Tut's tomb. Largely, Saatchi's black box-style exhibition rooms allow the pieces to do the talking, even if the building's labyrinthine setup occasionally yanks you out into the cold reality of a corridor, and someone shuffling you onto the next display.

That canopic coffin currently flanking escalators across the tube network may be pint-sized, but we still end up sharing a moment of awe with someone — incredulous at the tiny inscriptions inside, incredulous that it held the liver of the most famous pharaoh ever to live. (There was, naturally, a dedicated goddess to protect said viscera.)

Colossal Quartzite Statue of Tutankhamun. Image: Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo, Italy

The stories are so rich, the details still so sharp, you almost start to believe the giddy beliefs of those Egyptians. Maybe the 400-odd miniature statues of Tutankhamun's workers — or shabtis — DID spring into action for their otherworldly boss once the tomb was sealed, like some thousands-years-old Toy Story.

The motive behind this rock star 10-country farewell tour is that it'll pay for a 650,000 square-foot enormo-museum in Giza. These shows are essentially a Great Exhibition for our time; a fundraiser for a permanent monument to an iconic man. The Grand Egyptian Museum will be one of the world's great — and, let's be honest, greatly exhausting — visitor attractions. But if you're unsure whether you'll ever make it to Egypt, now's the time to take a deep breath and reach for that wallet.

Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh, Saatchi Gallery, 2 November 2019-3 May 2020. Peak time tickets from £28.50, on sale now.

Last Updated 04 November 2019