New Egyptian Gallery at the British Museum
The Michael Cohen Gallery dedicated to the stunning
Nebamun tomb paintings opens
The British Museum has just opened a new Ancient Egyptian gallery centred round the spectacular painted tomb-chapel of Nebamun. The paintings are some of the most famous images of Egyptian art, and come from the now lost tomb-chapel of Nebamun, an accountant in the Temple of Amun at Karnak who died c. 1350 BC, a generation or so before Tutankhamun. They show him at work and at leisure – surveying his estates and hunting in the marshes. An extensive conservation project – the largest in the Museum’s history – has been undertaken on the eleven large fragments which will go on public display for the first time in nearly ten years.
The tomb-paintings were acquired by the Museum in the 1820s and were constantly on display until the late 1990s. Since then, the fragile wall-paintings have been meticulously conserved, securing them for at least the next fifty years. The project has provided numerous new insights into the superb technique of the painters called by one art-historian ‘antiquity’s equivalent to Michelangelo’ – with their exuberant compositions, astonishing depictions of animal life and unparalleled handling of textures. New research and scholarship have enabled new joins to be made between the fragments, allowing a better understanding of their original locations in the tomb. They will now be re-displayed together for the first time in a setting designed to recreate their original aesthetic impact and to evoke their original position in a small intimate chapel. The gallery will include another fragment for the same tomb-chapel on loan from the Egyptian Museum, Berlin. Drawing on the latest research and fieldwork at Luxor, a computer ‘walk-through’ of the reconstructed tomb-chapel will be available in gallery with an interactive version online.
Next to the paintings, 150 artefacts show how the tomb-chapel was built, how it remained open for visitors, and also the nature of Egyptian society at the time. Most of the objects are contemporary with Nebamun and reflect those depicted in his paintings. Some, however, contrast with the idealised world-view that is shown on elite monuments like the tomb-chapel and show that most people’s experience of life was not necessarily all about leisure and prestige as in the paintings. Spectacularly luxurious objects, such as a glass perfume bottle in the shape of a fish, are juxtaposed with crude tools of basic survival, such as a fishing net, to suggest that most of what we know of Ancient Egypt is about the small wealthy elite.
The gallery is on the upper floor of the Museum next to the galleries of Ancient Egyptian funerary archaeology (the ‘mummy rooms’) which are the most popular galleries in the museum. This gallery will provide a new ‘must-see’ highlight for the Egyptian collections. The gallery is generously supported by the R & S Cohen Foundation.