Thursday 25 August 2016

Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds, British Museum

The lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus once lay at the mouth of the Nile. They were  submerged over a thousand years ago in a similar fashion to the fate that threatens Venice. The British Museum’s latest major exhibition showcases items excavated by Franck Goddio and team from the site of their resting place in the depths of the Mediterranean. The museum’s vast exhibition space has been decorated in turquoise and blue to emulate the water that many of the items emerged from, a constant soundtrack attempts to add to the atmosphere. Vast statues stand proudly dominating the space, a quite remarkable sight, especially considering how well preserved they are after centuries in their watery grave.

Large sculptures highlight each room but there are many smaller, more every day items, which they attempt to use to reveal more about the culture and interlinking of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian custom. Barely ten percent of the remains have been excavated and a tinier proportion still are on display. The exhibition is padded with items from the museum’s own collections as well as some from further afield, a water symbol on the labels clearly identifying those from the excavation site. They attempt to bring to life the bustling cities that they were in their prime; Thonis-Heracleion holding a position of importance in the commercial world, and Canopus more focused on the worship of Egyptian gods. It becomes clear that their positioning on the Nile afforded many opportunities, but also that they tried to emulate civilisations that had come before in order to add legitimacy to their own.

The exhibition is genuinely breathtaking in its earlier stages and an introductory video details the amazing discovery of the lost cities, heightening the curiosity. Short videos and photographs are dotted around the space showing objects in situ and in the process of being recovered, giving them context beyond the walls of the museum. Attempts have been made to make Sunken Cities family friendly with separate exhibition notes and activities. There were a number of children visiting at the same time and their reactions suggest this was a welcome addition.

Coming to this exhibition with little to no knowledge of the cities and their discovery, and only a basic knowledge of the period covered, it is engaging and informative. If I had one gripe it would be that the labels in some sections were too repetitive – a fact that would doubtless have been more exasperating for a more knowledgeable visitor. Sunken Cities gets off to an impressive start but loses its way slightly by the end. Nonetheless, this is an exhibition which affects in a way I’ve not experienced before. If you can get beyond issues with the sponsor it’s definitely worth a visit.

Sunken Cities is at the British Museum until 27th November 2016.

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