I have just returned from a trip to Berlin, where I took the chance to see a major new exhibition at the recently reopened Neues Museum: ‘In the Light of Amarna: 100 Years of the Nefertiti Discovery’. The exhibition was timed to coincide with the centenary of the discovery of the famous painted plaster bust of Queen Nefertiti, on the 6th of December 1912. So soon after Manchester’s own centenary and because of our rich Amarna holdings (we have almost 800 objects from the site) it seemed an ideal opportunity to revisit the Berlin Egyptian and Sudanese collections.
The exhibition space is split between two levels. It opens with the excavations of the Deutsches Orient-Gesellschaft (DOG) at Tell el-Amarna, led by Ludwig Borchardt, which discovered the bust. Borchardt’s brief diary entry contains what is still an apt description of the bust today: “No use describing it, you have to see it.” Indeed, having established that the bust is in many ways indescribable, the exhibition as a whole is arranged to build anticipation: only at the very end does the visitor come face-to-face with Nefertiti herself.
Yet the key strength of the display is the much-needed context it gives to this singular piece of sculpture. Borchardt’s excavations for the DOG are placed within the setting of early 20th century Egyptian archaeology. The dig was funded by James Simon, a Jewish entrepreneur who was the son of a wealthy cotton merchant – circumstances very similar to Jesse Haworth’s support Petrie’s work in Egypt, which formed the basis of the Manchester Museum Egyptology collection. Of the many captivating archive photos in this section, one showing the Nefertiti bust and other Amarna sculpture in Simon’s home (before being given to the state museums) was particularly striking.
The contested nature of the finds division that led to Nefertiti being brought to Berlin is not ignored, and the role of the German press in helping to form popular opinion is particularly well illustrated. In the current exhibition, particular emphasis is placed on the fragility of the bust. Indeed, the exhibition is essentially formed around Nefertiti – rather than Nefertiti being moved to the centre of the exhibition. Given the condition of the bust, it seems unlikely that she’ll be travelling very far any time soon.
What fascinates me about the (very brief and atypical) Amarna Period is not so much the protagonists themselves, their beliefs or suggested abnormalities, but rather the fact that those characters exert such a disproportionate amount of interest for the general public and academic community alike.
The new exhibition acknowledges this interest and – while presenting the famous bust in its proper archaeological context – explicitly addresses the fact that the bust has often been taken out of context, most notably attested by Nefertiti’s numerous appearances in pop art and kitsch. The decision to place the ‘modern reception’ section of the exhibit close to the gift shop was well-advised, showing how much Nefertiti remains a commercial icon.
The entrance to the main section, on the upper level of the exhibition, is dominated by a stylised shaft of orange Aten-like light. Using a necessarily small selection of key objects, the prelude to Akhenaten’s reign is covered, before life (as opposed to death) at Amarna is explored in detail. The large numbers of objects on display reflect the density of finds: countless fragments of stone, faience, glass. In its object selections, the new exhibition parallels many of Manchester’s holdings. All of this material, illustrating various aspects of life at the city, succeeded in providing the famous bust with a realistic setting among living people. The famous ‘workshop’ of the sculptor Tuthmose is seen as just one of several areas at Amarna engaged in producing objects for the elite, whether stone sculpture, pottery or glass and faience objects.
Manchester’s replica bust of Nefertiti – created in the 1930s and one of a limited number of ‘official’ copies – remains very popular. In the old galleries, many visitors were mislead into thinking that this was the real bust (despite being labelled as a replica), perhaps because it was included alongside genuinely ancient objects from Amarna. By including our replica bust, along with other Amarna copies, in our ‘Fakes and Replicas’ cases in Ancient Worlds, we hope to allow visitors to experience something of the indescribable bust in three dimensions. Yet we also want to emphasise the desirability of this particular image, and highlight its unique place in the replication of Pharaonic visual culture.