Gods of Egypt in Leiden

Review of a new exhibition

A new exhibition about the Egyptian deities in the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden is interesting, but workmanlike.

Josho Brouwers

The National Antiquities Museum in Leiden has one of the largest, most impressive collections of objects from ancient Egypt anywhere in the world. So when the museum organizes a new exhibition on an Egyptian theme, it commands attention.

First, though, a bit of history. Over the last few years, the museum has renewed its permanent exhibitions; not always successfully, in my opinion. I’ve been critical of the new permanent exhibition of their ancient Greek material, which I think is too art-historical and not archaeological enough.

Their temporary exhibitions have been hit-or-miss for me. One of them left me asking whether archaeological museums were nothing more than just collections of things. But I did really like their exhibition on the Roman house, and thought that their exhibition on swords, called Cutting-Edge History, offered a good example of question-driven exhibition design.

Gods of Egypt

The newest exhibition at the National Antiquities Museum in Leiden is called Gods of Egypt. It opened on 12 October and you can see it until 31 March 2019. It’s located, as all new, large temporary exhibitions are, on the first floor of the museum, in what is essentially a wide corridor that runs all along the open space of the inner courtyard that serves as the museum’s entrance hall.

With the exhibition on the Roman house (among others), you turned right after walking in and proceeded in counter-clockwise order; with Gods of Egypt, you’re supposed to turn left. I’m sure there’s some kind of logic at work here, but it confused me for a moment, as I inadvertently walked into what was intended to be the last room of the exhibition first.

This display case is dedicated to the god Bes, a protector of households and one of the more popular of Egyptian deities. The relief in the background depicts Bes, sticking out his tongue and raising a sword; on the left, we see his wife, Beset, dancing. This relief is from the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam and dates to the Late Period. The foreground depicts various vases shaped like Bes; the ones near no. 2 date from the Late Period down to 30 BC, near no. 3 from the 26th Dynasty (664-525 BC).

Anyway, the title of the exhibition is precise: it’s all about the gods worshipped by the ancient Egyptians. As the press release boasts, the exhibition features more than five hundred objects – statues, figurines, reliefs, papyri, jewellery, sacrophagi, and so on – from the Antiquities Museum itself as well as other museums both domestic and foreign, including the British Museum, the Louvre, and the Egyptian Museum in Turin.

One of the things I like about recent temporary exhibitions, here but also elsewhere, is that they often pose a question right at the start that informs the exhibition as a whole. After walking through the doors of the temporary exhibition area, you’re immediately faced with a large wall featuring text that opens as follows:

Just one God suffices for Christians, Jews and Muslims. Yet the ancient Egyptians worshipped thousands of deities. How did their pantheon function and how did this [sic] develop?

The question posed isn’t a particularly challenging one, but it’ll do. The text underneath, printed in a smaller font size, explains that the ancient Egyptian pantheon “had a clear structure”, and that this structure “is the subject of this exhibition”. In principle, I like this: it immediately makes clear what the exhibition is about and what you can expect from it. Unfortunately, the exhibition turns out to be exactly what it says on the tin, meaning that it’s nothing more than the sum of its parts.

Khnum is depicted as a potter, turning a wheel with his foot while shaping a mass of clay. Fragment of a royal statue from Bubastis. Late Period, 30th Dynasty (360-343 BC).

The exhibition kicks off with an area dedicated to Egyptian creation myths, with pride of place to Khnum, the ram’s headed creator god. This area also features the Shabaka Stone, an object from the British Museum that records the story of the creation of the city of Memphis. I like the fact that the exhibition explains that there were different stories in different parts of ancient Egypt: too often, cultures are treated as monolithic entities, with little regard for regional or diachronic variation.

A short animation plays here, as in other areas of the exhibition. It is projected unto the wall and gives a brief explanation relevant to this part of the exhibition; it’s playful and interesting, as well as very accessible. Personally, I never really have the patience to watch a video in a museum, but these are short and interesting enough to warrant attention.

The following rooms deal with the gods of the heavens (who were mostly female), the gods of the moon, the stars, and the Earth. The latter area also devotes space to what are referred to as the “gods on Earth”, the “pharaohs” (kings), as well as to Egyptian temples. The next area moves the deities to a more personal level as objects highlight the gods of the house and home, of whom the little god Bes is perhaps the best known.

A view of the part of the exhibition dealing with the “gods on Earth”. The objects are interesting, the texts are generally informative (if necessarily rather general), and graphic design and presentation is great. It’s a pity that the exhibition as a whole doesn’t really challenge the visitor to think about ancient Egypt (or its gods) in new ways.

Mummies and processions naturally lead to a space devoted to the gods of the netherworld. Objects here feature statues of Osiris and the jackal-headed god Anubis, a few mummy coffins, and examples of the Egyptian “Book of the Dead”. For those interested in the “darker” side of Egyptian mythology, there’s also ample text and objects dedicated to Apophis (Apep) and Set, i.e. the usual suspects.

Text with the heading “Eternal life” marks the end of ancient Egypt proper and serves as an introduction to the deities of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. A display case highlights the merging of cultures using two small figurines of the falcon-headed god Horus: one dates to the Late Period (ca. 772-332 BC, according to the description) and is typically Egyptian; the other dates to the first to second centuries AD, with the god depicted wearing Roman military dress. I find this a very effective way to demonstrate cultural change across time to a general audience.

The final area of the exhibition deals with Egyptianizing modern art and other objects, including comic books and films.

The final area of the exhibition deals with Egyptomania and the seemingly unending interest in ancient Egypt, featuring, of course, a poster of the movie Gods of Egypt (2016), as well as comic books, modern Egyptianizing “art”, and so on. This part of the exhibition felt the least developed to me: a large (too large?) collection of disparate objects without much structure or point other than to illustrate that ancient Egypt is still something that draws interest. Of course it does: we wouldn’t be here otherwise, right?

Thoughts on the exhibition

There are plenty of interesting objects on display, but the exhibition in and of itself, for me at least, wasn’t particularly exciting. It’s not that it’s bad in any way. It feels, more than anything, workmanlike in how the topic has been approached. Maybe it’s because the subject matter is so well-known: when one thinks of ancient Egypt, aren’t the animal-headed gods, the stone temples and massive tombs, including the pyramids, among the very first things that enter one’s thoughts?

The structure promised at the beginning of the exhibition is delivered in full: we start at the beginning, with the Egyptian stories and gods related to the creation of the world. We follow the story until myth seemingly gives way to history, when we reach the Graeco-Roman world and then jump ahead to the nineteenth century and later.

This cast of a relief on an architrave depicts king Seti I being ritually cleansed by the deities Seth (left) and Horus (right). To the left, we see Seti offering to the god Re-Horakhty; to the right, we see him offering to Atum. The king is a god on earth, and as such he functions as an intermediary between mortals and deities. He is the high priest of all temples in Egypt. The original dates to the 19th Dynasty (1290-1279 BC).

Simply put: there are no surprises here. Compare it to a new performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays: you know exactly what to expect (if you’ve read the play or seen another performance of it), but you hope that a crafty director will throw in a surprise or two, or that a talented actor adds a fresh dimension to a familiar character. Sadly, nothing like that happens with this exhibition. It doesn’t challenge your ideas about ancient Egypt. It doesn’t push the envelope as much as it might – or as much as I would have liked.

It might seem that I’m terribly down on the exhibition, but it’s nevertheless worth a visit. If you’ve already amassed a wealth of knowledge on the subject, you might wander through it quickly, stopping only to look at the objects you’ve not seen before. If you’ve never really delved into the gods of Egypt, you’ll undoubtedly find a lot to like here, and you’ll learn plenty.

In short, Gods of Egypt may not be the most exciting exhibition on ancient Egypt, but it’s worth a visit for sure. Here’s hoping that the next large exhibition will be a bit more ambitious.