Clash of the Titans
In the Blue Corner we have relative newcomer “Emperor” Qin Shihuangdi, whose fanbase, the barmy “Terracotta Army” will literally follow him to the ends of the earth. Discovered in 1974, he’s received rave reviews and his sheer size should prove an interesting match for Big Tut.
Warming up in the Red Corner we have the perennial crowd favourite, King “The Boy” Tutankhamun. Still in good form after 3,000 years; some pundits have noted he’s looking a little flabby around the midriff these days. We’ve seen Tutmania before – can he pull it off again?
Form: Unknown. Only discovered in 1974 and no major exhibition in Britain before.
Weight: 20 figures + sundry grave goods.
Performance: Beautifully displayed in The Round Reading Room. Each warrior fabulously presented and close enough to (almost) touch. Fabulously displayed and well-lit. Scholarly but entertaining. Emphasis on life at the Imperial Court, including leisure and bureaucratic figures as well as the more famous military images. Clerks and musicians, animals and birds supplement the more famous terracotta soldiers. One of the most memorable parts is the contrast between the first figure – a crouching archer – and the last – a modern replica coloured as it would have originally have been. An extraordinary experience.
Extras: Large screens with filmic representations of the life of the First Emperor.
Rounds: Takes about an hour and a half.
Odds: Entry – £ 12 adults, children over 16, £ 10 Children under 16 free
Memorabilia: Classic British Museum mementos – t-shirts, mugs, books etc.
Verdict: The future for this guy is exciting indeed. Only a tiny part of the Terracotta Army itself has been unearthed so far; and virtually none of the rest of Qin Shihuangdi’s funerary world. The man himself still rests under a giant earthen pyramid, allegedly sleeping in a temple surrounded by rivers of mercury. For now, though, this exhibition is outstanding.
Ding-ding. Time Out. Take out that mouth guard and enjoy a slice of orange, a magic sponge or one of those nice sandwiches in The Great Court.
Dong! Round Two:
“Big” King Tut
Form: The full collection of Treasures visited The British Museum in 1972 and smashed all box-office records. Crowds queued around the block to file past the famous funeral mask.
Weight: Far fewer items from the actual tomb of the boy king this time, bulked-out with treasures from lesser-known royal figures. The golden mask is, notoriously, not with the tour (‘tour’ being a good word for this spectacle; the man is given full rock-star treatment) but there is a fabulous miniature coffin, executed in perfect detail, to contain the royal liver, specially preserved some three thousand years before George Best thought he’d cut out the middleman and pickle his own liver pre-mortem. What the little golden sarcophagus lacks in stature it makes up for in detail – an absolutely stunning exhibit.
Performance: Surprisingly good. I was expecting a slick, highly-commercial, slightly tacky experience and it is certainly aimed at the crowds. A 90-second trailer (sorry “introduction”) for the exhibition, voiced by Omar Shariff, bodes worryingly, the first few moments being more akin to a cross between a chillout lounge and a Disneyland ride. As the great doors open and everyone crowds round the first exhibit, the heart sinks. Is it going to be like this all the way round?
Actually not. After that first scrum, the crowds do disperse (a little – there’s no way this is ever going to be a private view but it’s nowhere near the crushes that you get at exhibitions at the V&A or Tate Britain) and the pieces have been laid out so that visitors can get all the way round each cabinet, further lessening the pressure. The labels are repeated at the top of each cabinet, so people waiting can read the notes first.
The exhibition looks good – not quite as cool as The First Emperor, but clear and simple. Much of the upstairs part is artifacts from other royal tombs – including a gold funeral mask and coffin from one of Tutankhamun’s aunts. The Egyptians, like the Chinese, needed models of people to do their work for them in the afterlife, but they were more concerned with quality not quantity. The First Emperor had thousands of life-size clay figures; the Egyptians were happy that their shabtis were about a foot high, but they wanted them to be made of gold and precious stones.
The end of the upstairs part looks so much like the end of the exhibition that it produces a slight anticlimax. Happily this is showbiz and there is a finale downstairs – the climax of the exhibition, even if it’s the audience that gets to do the walkdown. It’s down here that the real treasures begin – the stuff that most people come for. Again it’s well-displayed to make the most of the space. The final room is based around items actually found in the wrappings of the king, with a projected image of the absent coffin showing where each item was found.
Rounds: Takes a couple of hours.
Odds: A whopping £ 15 /20 adults (weekdays/weekends) £ 7.50/10 Children
Memorabilia: Generally pricey but reasonable quality. But some rubbish too. Tut tat includes a tissue box holder where the hankies come out through Tutankhamun’s nose,£29.95, coffeepot baubles, £25, ‘Mummy Putty,’ £4.95, a sarcophagus CD rack, £240, single chocolate lollipops, £8.95 (no, really)and my favourite, a Zahi Hawass (not Indiana Jones, no, not at all) hat, £45.
Knockout? Yes. Definitely worth a visit.
Verdict: If you’re patient, you can see all the exhibits well – it’s busy, not ridiculous. The music, which reminded me of computer-game soundtracks (if you know Neverwinter Nights then it’s just like the desert scenes) is not as irritating as I had expected – after a while you can forget it’s there.
Overall winner: Difficult. Both are huge blockbusters, both hugely entertaining. If I had to choose, probably The First Emperor. But don’t choose. Empty your piggy bank and see them both.