Mucem J4, Level 2 (1200m2)
From Wednesday 22 June 2022 to Monday 17 October 2022
The exhibition “Pharaoh Superstars” tells how some kings and queens of Ancient Egypt have become international icons today, while others, who had their moment of glory in ancient times, have almost completely forgotten.
Cheops, Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, Ramesses and Cleopatra are names that are familiar to us, thousands of years after the death of the rulers who bore them. But who today remembers Teti, Sesostris or Nectanebo? The exhibition “Pharaoh Superstars” tells how some kings and queens of Ancient Egypt have become international icons today, while others, who had their moment of glory in ancient times, have almost completely forgotten.
Part history, part legend, this 5,000-year journey takes the visitor on a discovery of the exploits and especially the posthumous fame of these exotic characters who are the pharaohs. They can serve as a parable to illustrate the nature and paths of fame, reminding us that notoriety is ephemeral, fickle and not always based on historical merit.
From Egyptian hieroglyphics to pop music and medieval illuminations to classical painting, the originality of this exhibition rests on how it brings together such a wide variety of artworks, historical documents, and contemporary consumer objects. All of them bear witness to the popularity of the pharaohs, their names and images, and often tell us more about our contemporary societies, imagination and aspirations.
The exhibition presents nearly 300 pieces from the collections of the Mucem and the largest French and European collections, including the Musée du Louvre (Paris), the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Paris), the Musée d’Archéologie méditerranéenne (Marseille), the British Museum (London), the Musées royaux d’Art et d’Histoire (Brussels), the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Vienna), the Museo Egizio (Turin), the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum (Lisbon), the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), the Musée d’Orsay (Paris), and the Bibliothèques de la Ville de Marseille.
After the Mucem in Marseille, it will be presented at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon (from 24 November 2022 to 6 March 2023).
This exhibition, initially planned at the Mucem for the summer of 2020, had to be postponed due to the health situation.
—Curation: Frédéric Mougenot, chief curator, custodian for heritage, Antiquities and Ceramics Collection, Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille et Guillemette Andreu-Lanoë, associate curator, honorary director of the department of Antiquities of the Musée du Louvre
—Scenography : Emilie Delanne et Amélie Lauret, Graepheme Scénographie
—Partenaires : Roc-Eclerc Funecap, Ametis Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur
Exhibition devised and produced by the Mucem in a co-production with la Fondation Gulbenkian de Lisbonne
Interview with Frédéric Mougenot et Guillemette Andreu-Lanoë, exhibition curators
By retracing the posthumous destinies of some of the kings and queens of Ancient Egypt, this exhibition offers a reflection on the notion of celebrity. How did you come up with this idea?
It was when I found works of art and recent objects in the Mucem’s collections that mention kings and queens of Egypt that I was inspired to produce an exhibition on the posterity and fame of the pharaohs. For instance, a 19th century print featuring Sesostris among Napoleon I’s predecessors, a condom by the American brand Ramesses, or a record of the song Nefertiti by France Gall. We wanted to show visitors that these sovereigns, who died thousands of years ago far from us, are still present in our imagination – and also to offer a reflection on the reasons for this longevity. In the same way as we also knew that the Ancient Egyptians kept alive the memory of some of their most glorious kings for several centuries or even millennia, we wanted to make that link between ancient celebrities and those of today.
The figure of the pharaoh still has a very strong evocative power today, as shown by the recent success of the international “Tutankhamun” exhibition…
Guillemette Andreu-Lanoë (G.A.-L.)
Many factors contribute to this fascination with the pharaohs. Regularly, the world learns through the media that spectacular archaeological discoveries are taking place in Egypt. This vitality of archaeology maintains interest in Ancient Egypt at a very high level, especially since most of the time it is about the discovery of tombs with “treasures” that are in excellent condition. It is a dream come true, and it has been dreamt about since childhood. Egyptian artefacts are often golden and colourful, with many animal shapes that enchant children, and this continues into adulthood.
The treasure of Tutankhamun is unique in its splendour, its state of preservation, and the multiplicity of objects it contained, some of which weigh kilos of gold! No ancient civilization has delivered so many discoveries.
Pharaoh is king, an absolute monarch with theoretically unlimited power and therefore the master of all these riches. This undoubtedly contributes to make him fascinating and at times a little terrifying – like the “evil” Pharaoh of the Exodus – but also very compelling. Very few people dream they are peasants from the Nile valley; we prefer to imagine ourselves as a king or a queen.
Although focused on the pharaohs, this exhibition is not limited to Ancient Egypt and presents a particularly varied set of objects covering a period of 5,000 years…
Yes, that’s what makes it unique and original. The idea is to make people aware of pharaohs who were both important as well as those who were not so glorious during their lifetime. We then follow their destinies into the 21st century of our era, while at the same time suggesting the reasons and events that either made them “superstars” over the centuries or kept them forgotten by us all. In other words, our aim is to expose “the irony of History”.
To tell this very long story, the exhibition brings together Egyptian antiquities dating from the pharaohs; Western and Eastern artworks from the Middle Ages to the present day, such as paintings and sculptures, photographs and historical films; as well as objects from everyday life and contemporary pop culture. There should be something for everyone. Such a grouping within the same exhibition requires a certain open-mindedness, a curiosity that can be expected from the Mucem.
Among the objects on display, which are the most remarkable?
The visitor will not be able to miss the enormous fist of a statue of Ramesses II. This colossal fragment measuring over a metre on each side testifies to the gigantism of art under the reign of this pharaoh. And this monumentality largely contributed to the fame of this “superstar” king.
Similarly, a beautiful statue of Tutankhamun with the god Amen should delight visitors, even though it is half destroyed: the image and names of the pharaoh were deliberately smashed up by the Ancient Egyptians to erase his memory – which is ironic considering that Tutankhamun is today one of the most famous historical figures in the world.
In another genre, a very large tapestry from the Goblin factory, dating from the 17th century, occupies a central place in the second part of the exhibition. It illustrates a well-known episode of the confrontation between Moses and the pharaoh king, which has long conditioned our perception of Ancient Egypt.
Visitors will also be surprised and no doubt amused by a “Keops” motorcycle, manufactured and marketed in France in 1926. It testifies to the omnipresence of the names and images of the pharaohs in our daily lives, and must make us ask ourselves about what these figures evoke for us.
What impressed you the most during your research for this exhibition?
We were very pleased with the welcome we received from our colleagues, and not only Egyptologists, but also biblical scholars, Arabists, Islamic scholars and historians. They all helped us and helped us in our thinking. This means that this diachronic survey speaks to scholars, as we hope it will speak to the general public.
What surprised us was the quantity of references that one ends up accumulating when looking for works and objects that speak of the posterity of the pharaohs, both in the pharaonic civilization and in later societies. We end up seeing Ramesses and Nefertiti everywhere! In advertising, marketing and contemporary art in particular, colleagues and relatives have not ceased to introduce us to Egyptian works or products. But also in the art of periods that are a priori less rich in pharaonic references, such as the Middle Ages or the Renaissance. The case of the pharaoh Nectanebo, for example, amused us: while Egyptologists tend to see him as the last Egyptian king, who was defeated by the Persians, he was quite well known in the Middle Ages because a later legend claims that he was the real father of Alexander the Great – while great conquerors like Ramesses II had been completely forgotten.
What do the pharaohs tell us about our contemporary societies?
That since the time of the pharaohs, monarchs have implemented many ploys to ensure their posterity. There’s Louis XIV or Napoleon in the works and wars of some of our “superstars”. The Egypt of the pharaohs remains a unifying landmark for today’s Egyptians in times of crisis. And if, in French, the often used adjective “pharaonique” describes something immense and megalomaniacal, it is a form of homage to rulers who would stop at nothing to express their power and submission to the gods.
Our attachment to the pharaohs also reminds us that we like to fantasise and imagine a sunnier, more prosperous and more enjoyable world. The radiance of the pharaohs and their treasures makes us comfortably forget the living conditions of the little people. The kings of Egypt and their queens evoke for us images of youth, physical beauty, wealth and undisputed individual power, which are quite common aspirations today. Their celebrity even long after their death, their monuments that still bear their names, and their mummies make us believe in the eternity of bodies and make us dream of a form of survival after death, or even of victory over death, which is ultimately the great concern of all humanity.
Partners and sponsors
Exhibition devised and produced by the Mucem in a co-production with the Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian
With the exceptional participation the Musée du Louvre
With the exceptional participation the Musée d’archéologie méditerranéenne du Centre de la Vieille Charité