Ashmolean LiveFriday: Egyptomania

While Hallowe’en may now be dominated by pumpkins, bats, and small girls dressed as witches, the Ashmolean Museum’s Hallowe’en LiveFriday event succeeded in avoiding the pseudo-scary commercialised image that has made its way across from the United States. The LiveFriday events, where the museum opens its doors for a themed evening of entertainment, have previously explored musical technologies, Chinese art, and the Gods of Mount Olympus; for Hallowe’en, it was the turn of ‘Egyptomania’, coinciding with their recent ‘Discovering Tutankhamun’ exhibition, playing on the fascination with mummies and Ancient Egypt that was so popularised in the 1920s. The opportunity to enjoy the supernatural and sometimes spooky stories associated with the phenomenon was not passed over, but nor was it the defining point of the night, which instead presented Ancient Egypt through the eyes of those discovering it nearly a century ago. This approach was immensely effective, and helped to avoid the perhaps overly stuffy impression one might receive of Egyptology on its own, showing its significance to people more recently as well as historically. Upon approaching the entrance to the museum, the flaming torches and live Band, Hot Fingers jazz, provided a fitting start to the evening, and were almost enough to make one wish that the staff had not been quite as admirable at shifting the long queue as they were!

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For all that this was an excellent start, though, the evening did take a while to warm up, and there were a few moments of simply waiting around to work out what was where and when. The map provided might have perhaps aided this process with a touch more clarity, but in the end, it is perhaps inevitable that they did not want to hurry all of the best things through at the start, and in any case, a few extra minutes to wander the Ashmolean at large is no bad thing. The first thing I came across was the Roaring Twenties Jazz in the Greek and Roman sculpture gallery (why, where else?), and like the players outside, they set the atmosphere with tight playing and excellent tune choices. After a little aimless wandering, I ended up catching the end of a talk on Egyptian burial practices that was being offered at various points in the evening, and while it was informative, it did not benefit from visual demonstrations or examples as much as it might, bearing in mind that it was in a room devoted to the same subject. Another feature of the evening was the various points around the museum where guides bore badges encouraging us to “Ask me about my object”, and this was definitely a worthwhile thing to do. I learnt a great deal in the five minutes I spent looking at offering stones, learning a little of how to read hieroglyphs, and coming away greatly more informed than I had been. I wish I had had the opportunity to find more objects such as this, but as with all good events of this type, there were simply too many things to do them all! I had hoped to get to the lecture theatre for a few of the lectures that evening, but was pipped to the entrance when almost at the front, and always with a significant queue behind – while space is unavoidably limited, I though it a shame to turn away more than half of those queuing, knowing that the lecture was only being offered once that night.

It was the second floor that provided most of the highlights of the evening, in the end. In the early British history gallery, a dramatic retelling of the legend of the curse of Tutankhamun’s tomb was brilliantly rendered, highly enjoyable, and even to a jaded skeptic like myself, more than a little thrilling. I managed to get back for another rendition later in the evening, and enjoyed myself just as much as I had before. In the same place, later on, a reading of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lot 249 was similarly enjoyable, and gave a small hint as to the appeal of the supernatural to fiction writers of the time. I managed to hear a little of the Elia Ensemble’s presentation of Handel arias, and while impressed with the musicianship on show, especially that of the violinist, I was left wondering how closely this really sat with the theme of the evening.

For me, another undeniable highlight was in the musical instruments gallery, where the inimitable (but scandalously uncredited) Giles Lewin presented a selection of Egyptian and Turkish tunes on the fiddle, oud, and rabab. Knowing as little as I do about the music of the Middle East, this was a fascinating insight into different musical cultures of the same period as the jazz downstairs. Giles’s absorbing playing was a real gem, although the experience would have benefited from a staff member or two encouraging quiet during the playing.

Even this brief survey misses out a huge amount of what was going on that night — I managed to miss most of the dancing demonstrations, as well as OUDS’s presentation of Antony and Cleopatra, and some of the more child-oriented activities of the evening. Despite the occasional periods of awkwardly waiting around for the next thing, this was a delightful presentation of Egypt and Egyptology from a range of perspectives that served to augment the understanding of the history in the context of its discovery, and without recourse to the stereotypical spookiness of Hallowe’en. My only regret? I didn’t have a fez.

C. E. Queripel

For more information about upcoming LiveFridays, please visit the Ashmolean website.

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