Exhibition Review: ‘Tutankhamun the Boy: Growing up in ancient Egypt’ at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology

Photo of a limestone statue head and headdress of the god Amun-Min.
Head of Min-Amun (UC34503) with features attributed to Tutankhamun. (Author photograph)

It is November 2022, 100 years after the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. The centenary of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun and the bicentenary of Champollion’s decipherment of Hieroglyphs has produced many exhibitions, books, blogs, podcasts, and programmes. It has also provoked considerable reflection about the colonial origins of Egyptology and what its future should be. Amongst the many new and old ‘takes’ on Tutankhamun, Hieroglyphs, and Egypt, I was interested to see the Petrie Museum‘s new exhibition Tutankhamun, the Boy, which accompanies their project of the same name and runs from September 2022- December 2023 at the Petrie Museum (free to enter, Tuesday-Saturday 1-5pm).

Small museum, big impact!

The Petrie Museum is a small museum in terms of its physical space, but its collection is large, with a high proportion of its holdings on display in an almost ‘Wunderkammer-style‘. It also includes many excavated items, which can be contextualised with archival and published excavation records. Many of these artefacts come from settlement sites and include objects from the daily life of ordinary ancient Egyptians, as well as more stereotypical elite products (like the head of Min-Amun right). The curators of the exhibition have used these ordinary objects, together with material from Amarna and Gurob – two probable childhood homes of Tutankhamun – to answer children’s questions about growing up in ancient Egypt.

Picture of a display case containing ancient Egyptian artefacts with text at the back and along the bottom.
The first, Tutankhamun The Boy, display-case dealing with Tutankhamun’s royal childhood. Background information is provided in the panel behind, while the children’s questions, answers, and object details are provided in front, at the bottom of the case (Author photograph).

Child’s eye view

Rather than the curators’ ‘take’ on childhood in ancient Egypt, Tutankhamun the Boy is designed around the questions a Year 3 class from the local George Mitchell primary school would like to ask Tutankhamun and other ancient Egyptian children. The questions were derived from various workshops undertaken at the school using 3d replicas of Petrie Museum artefacts. In subsequent phases of the project, similar workshops will take place in Egypt with schoolchildren living near the site of Amarna. Their ideas and questions will be shared with the children from the George Mitchell school and will feed into subsequent phases and longer-term displays in the museum. If this proves successful, future displays will incorporate the ideas and questions of both local children and descendant Egyptian communities.

Due to the small size of the museum space, the Tutankhamun: the Boy exhibition occupies a board and two display cases next to the shabtis, in what regular visitors will recognise as the ‘pottery room’. The display board provides the background for the display in English and Arabic and explains how the objects have been chosen based on the children’s questions. The first display case discusses Tutankhamun’s royal childhood, while the second considers the experience of ancient Egyptian children more generally.

Photo of an ancient Egyptian child's woven reed sandal.
Photo of a display case sign. It reads;
Within a speech bubble at the top;
'Do you wear fancy clothes'
Captioned' Dressing like a prince' the answer is, 'Most ancient Egyptian children would not have worn shoes, but children from the royal household and wealthy families wore finely made reed sandals. This sandal is for a left foot and is the same as a UK children's size ten, worn by a child aged four or five today.'
Below is the object details;
'4. Child's woven reed sandal. Excavated by Egyptian workforce at Amarna. Amarna Period (c. 1352-1336 BC) UC769.'
The reed sandal (UC769) from the display with the relevant question, response, and object details (Author photograph).

The display is well-laid-out, with enough background information in each case to set the scene for the children’s questions and the objects that answer them. The children’s questions are presented in white speech bubbles at the front of the cases, below the objects. Below each bubble is the answer to the question, with some explanatory information and details of the relevant objects, including their case number and accession number. The relationship between the speech bubbles and the objects is beautifully clear, and the explanatory text provides further details of ancient Egyptian culture. Importantly, the speech bubbles, answers, explanatory text, and object details are low in the case where they are most visible to smaller and younger visitors. It is clear that this is a well-thought-out display, where attention has been paid to both adult and younger visitors.

Bronzes and Akhenaten

Limestone triad of Akhenaten, Nefertiti and a princess (UC16021) excavated from Amarna (Author photograph).

It is always a pleasure to see well-labelled, excavated artefacts and there are a number of fantastic examples of both elite products and everyday objects in the exhibition. The artefacts on display fall into three categories; typical products of ancient Egyptian culture that answer specific questions; objects directly associated with Tutankhamun; and items excavated from Gurob or Amarna, where he probably lived as a child. There are the obligatory statues of deities, but only those deities most associated with children: faience figures of Bes and Taweret, and a nice bronze statuette of Isis with Horus. Three different bead necklaces from child burials are also included in the section about jewellery, a far cry from the famous precious jewels Tutankhamun wore to his burial. No exhibition about Tutankhamun would be complete without reference to his famous predecessor, but Tutankhamun The Boy does not allow Akhenaten to dominate proceedings. He gets a brief mention in the section about Tutankhamun’s family, illustrated by a small limestone triad (UC16021) of Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and a princess. Although the type is familiar from many Egyptian collections, this statue was excavated from Amarna. Even where objects are typical or ubiquitous in Egyptian collections the exhibition focuses on those most relevant to Tutankhamun, childhood in ancient Egypt, or the sites of Gurob and Amarna where he probably lived as a child.

The Tutankhamun connection

Picture of a large white calcite (alabaster) jar with incised hieroglyphs.
Calcite (Egyptian alabaster) jar (UC16021) with the names of Tutankhamun and his queen, Ankhensenamun, excavated from Gurob (Author photograph).

The exhibition includes several objects directly associated with Tutankhamun. The calcite (Egyptian alabster) jar, excavated from Gurob, and incised with the names of Tutankhamun and Ankhensenamun is a beautiful object with possible links to Hatnub, that preeminent source of this stone. The beautiful limestone head attributed to Tutankhamun as Min-Amun (UC34503) is also a crowd-pleaser. It’s that heady mixture of royalty, religion, and beautiful sculpture so often associated with Egypt. Personally, I was fascinated to see the wooden cubit rod from Gurob, inscribed with the names of Tutankhamun and Ankhensenamun (UC16050). The royal name might be inscribed for religious, ritual, political, or commemorative reasons as well as marking objects that Tutankhamun actually used.

The unusual suspects

Picture of a stone block with seven rounded cups in the top. Various roughly rounded stones are present in six of the cups.
A Meroitic mancala style games board (UC44305, UC44306a-f) excavated from Meroe. (Author photograph)

Tutankhamun the Boy also includes some more unusual objects. The rattle (UC59266), rag doll (UC30094), spinning top (UC27984), and wooden horse (UC45015) all represent play. The mud crocodile figures are of a type often interpreted as ‘ritual’ objects, but could equally well be toys. Mehen boards like UC20354 are often included in exhibitions about games, but the mancala-style board (UC44305, UC44306a-f) is rather unusual. These objects came from various sites and date to various periods but all speak to ancient Egyptian childhood and are far less commonly represented in exhibitions.

Decorative faience inlays which once decorated houses or palaces, excavated from Amarna (UC907/909, UC476, UC35943, UC1353, UC1359). (Author photograph)

The painted limestone figurine of two monkeys (UC019), child’s reed sandal (UC769 – image above) and various glazed faience inlays (UC907/909, UC476, UC35943, UC1353, UC1359) come from Amarna, while the scribal palette (UC16055) is from Gurob. Such objects reflect the quality of crafts available to the ancient Egyptian elite, although neither is explicitly linked to Tutankhamun. The faience inlays are a particular specialism of the Petrie Museum, which contains a number of artefacts reflecting the opulent decoration of now-vanished houses and palaces and giving important insights into life (rather than death) in ancient Egypt.

Interesting and potentially transformative

It is refreshing to see a Tutankhamun exhibition that is focused on his life and childhood rather than on his death or the discovery of his tomb. The exhibition is unashamedly child-centred; in terms of its genesis in children’s questions,; its subject matter; and its display, with many details at child’s-eye height. Nevertheless, adults will find much to interest them. There is enough background information for adult visitors and plenty of interesting objects to satisfy a range of knowledgeable individuals. Tutankhamun the Boy manages to highlight rarely seen and often under-appreciated artefacts whether directly linked to Tutankhamun, excavated from his childhood homes, or just unusual artefacts from ancient Egyptian childhoods across the ages. The exhibition is an excellent introduction to Tutankhamun the Boy, but the truly transformative aspect of this project is its engagement with children and descendant communities in Egypt. If successful, this work will promote long-term change in the displays of the Petrie Museum and its relationships beyond the archive or display-case.

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