ETERNAL EGYPT

  • Story and photos by Sue Frause / Special to The Herald
  • Saturday, August 21, 2004 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

V RRictoria is all wrapped up in Egyptmania with the unveiling of “Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art from The British Museum,” which opened at the Royal British Columbia Museum on July 10.

The exhibition, on loan from The British Museum in London, will be on display in the provincial capital through Oct. 31, before its final stop at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. It’s the first time that many of these objects will be on view outside London.

The Royal British Columbia Museum is the only venue in western Canada and the Pacific Northwest to host this priceless exhibit of 144 masterworks from the British Museum, home to the finest collection of Egyptian art outside of Cairo.

Pauline Rafferty, chief executive officer of the Victoria museum, said it has been preparing for the exhibition for two years. Insured for $600 million (it arrived in three airplanes), the exhibit has cost $3 million to mount. Rafferty is proud of the result, which spans more than 3,000 years of culture, beginning at the time of the great pyramids and ending with the fall of Cleopatra.

Viewers can see the evolution of ancient Egyptian art, arranged chronologically throughout nine galleries. Works include stone, ivory, terra cotta, wood, papyrus, glass and gold, the metal of the pharaohs.

Exhibit designer John Robertson describes the installation as “Egyptian temple vernacular.” The overall effect is stunning, with low lighting (no cameras allowed) and attention to detail (in one gallery a ceiling of stars has been silk-screened onto 60 panels).

A dozen colors for the walls were eventually narrowed to a trio of gray-greens, terra cottas and pale yellow-browns of Egyptian sandstone. The subtle and familiar-sounding background music was in fact the same compilation used at the “Treasures of King Tutankhamen” exhibition in Seattle in 1978.

Highlights of the exhibit are numerous (a 40-minute audio tour is included in the admission price), all chosen for their rarity, beauty and historical significance. Holding center court is the 5,800-point red granite lion, which once guarded the temple of Soleb. Two of the prized pieces in the exhibit are the 3,000-year-old original “Book of the Dead” papyrus scroll and the gold Mummy Mask of Satdjehuty.

Although not a part of the Royal Museum’s collection, the Mummy Room was created to highlight Egypt’s obsessions with the afterlife. On display are two real mummies from Egypt, “Nellie” from the University of Washington’s Burke Museum in Seattle and a small boy on loan from the Vancouver Museum. There are also four animal mummies and one “hand created” mummy.

An Egyptian marketplace showcases everyday life in ancient Egypt, with examples of perfume, fashion, plants and cuisine. Playing in the adjoining IMAX Theatre is “Mysteries of Egypt,” narrated by and starring Egyptian actor Omar Sharif. The 1998 film is a good overview about the construction of the great pyramids and the mysteries and legends surrounding ancient Egypt’s burial tombs (see it before the exhibition if you’re a little rusty on Egyptian history).

But all things Egyptian don’t end when you exit the Royal Museum. The Victoria region is a bit “mummy” crazy, with everything from the “Eternal Egypt” logo blazing on banners and buses to the creation of a special microbrew.

Hotels are offering special packages and spas are also getting into the act. I enjoyed a sublime 90-minute “mummy clay wrap” at the Delta Ocean Pointe Resort’s newly remodeled and elegant spa. Cleopatra never had it so good.

The Fairmont Empress is also offering special treatments at its Willow Stream Spa.

Local restaurants have caught the Egyptian craze too. The Delta Ocean Pointe Resort offers Egyptian menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I enjoyed a guava and mango smoothie one morning (accompanied by a decadent pistachio baklava). For dinner, my husband and I ate in the Fairmont Empress Dining Room. A three-course menu featured food representing the Egyptian era. Spinnakers Brewpub &Guesthouse (the second oldest brewpub in Canada) has a special brew available through the end of the year.

Publican and innkeeper Paul Hadfield says that King Tut’s Tipple is a blend of malted barley, emmer wheat (from the Egyptian era), figs and star anise and its “reminiscent of ancient brews.”

But possibly the most bizarre tie-in with “Eternal Egypt” is at Galey’s Farm, just minutes from downtown Victoria. The day before the opening of the exhibition at the Royal Museum, owner Rob Galey and a crew of workers were scrambling to complete the construction of a half-scale replica of the Great Sphinx and Great Pyramid of Giza.

Galey, a 33-year-old third generation island farmer, has enlisted the expertise of two Vancouver, B.C., film companies, Savage Production Services and Mansueto Productions. The $500,000 project also includes the creation of the Nile River, complete with a waterfall discharging 5,000 gallons a minute; tunnels through tomb rooms complete with animatronics and robotics; and an Egyptian corn maze.

So what happens to the Egyptian landscape at Galey’s Farm after “Eternal Egypt” leaves town shortly after Halloween? According to Farmer Galey, all the creations will go to the highest bidder.

The pharaohs would be proud.

Sue Frause is a Whidbey Island freelance writer and photographer. She may be reached through her Web site at www.suefrause.com.

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