My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;“Ozymandias” sonnet by Shelley
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
I’m starting to feel like the grumpy old man next door when I go to museums. Case in point: this week’s sojourn to see the “Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharoahs” exhibit, at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. I was decidedly underwhelmed. Or, perhaps I should say overwhelmed by the crowds of people in small spaces, coupled with constant video and barking audio displays, to the point where it was hard to stand and just take in the 3200-year-old artifacts. I am such a history buff that I thought I’d be a little more impressed, so why wasn’t I? I have a theory, plus an important museum hack to share.
What Shelley Got Wrong
Shelley, in his sonnet “Ozymandias,” wrote of an ancient but forgotten ruler, whose statues poked out of dunes only to hint of a grandeur long past. Shelley himself was a poet of great renown, but whose bloom has faded over time. (Black fly in the Chardonnay there, Percy!) Plus, the brilliant image of body parts strewn in the sand was all in Shelley’s head as were a great many other things. He was never in Egypt but simply heard that the British Museum planned to put the recently-unearthed head of the pharaoh on display. He challenged a friend to a sonnet-writing contest, and he won, because the friend’s was nowhere near as memorable. (Google has the details, of course.)
Meanwhile, in 1818 the systematic parts of archaeology were just being created. Stratification, making lists, taking notes etc. Of course, people had been digging up things for years, but mostly to sell. A new wave of interest in rediscovering ancient civilizations was on the rise, and Egypt was chock full o’ objects, 40 or 50 centuries’ worth of civilizations to be discovered. Napoleon had poked around a few decades earlier, and the Brits and the French were in fierce competition to acquire stone body parts. Scholars say that, despite his vivid imagination, Shelley never saw the statues, which wouldn’t be displayed in the British Museum until 1821.
Still, it was an image that still resonates: the mightiest of kings whose power was now nearly erased from memory. Ozymandias was, in fact, the Greek name for Ramses II, or Ramses the Great as he was known then and, later, in the Cecil B. Demille epics, like the “Ten Commandments.” (See Yul Brynner) The craze for Biblical epics of the 1950s rekindled a new interest in ancient history between unexpected hits like “Samson and Delilah” and big-budget bombs like “Cleopatra.” Such waves of interest in Egyptology seem to crest at regular intervals. My roommate and I had taken a similar field trip out to the see the Tut exhibit back in the early eighties.
In other words, the ideas of the poem evoke the idea of lost grandeur, but the idea of Ozymandias is very much still alive. Between the poem, the statues on display in the 1820s, the film industry, and the spark that continues to send archaeologists to Cairo and Luxor, Ramses lives large in people’s minds. So an exhibit of artifacts from his age, presented in modern style and hyped to the max before, during, and after, attracts a crowd. The mighty “King of Kings,” as Shelley named him, has not been forgotten.
Enough with the Dancing Baloney
But in order to rekindle those memories, you will have to prepare for the Disney/Epcot experience. You will be shuffled through queues that stop from room to room as you are staged, watching slick preparatory videos that suggest you will be witnessing one of the greatest treasure troves ever seen in a museum, before you are allowed in (carefully timed between one group and the next). The display is laid out as if in a tomb, with twisting passageways and dark walls, the opposite of the vast, white-toned rooms where the regular paintings just hang. Explanatory videos describe the objects as they were removed or re-enact scenes from Ramses life. It was well-curated. And yet…and yet…
Something about the combination of people, dark lighting, nonstop video and audio, and the constant reminder that I was about to be impressed didn’t sit well with me. Maybe it was that museum-oblivious state that some get into, where they stop to listen to their audio tour and stare, not noticing that there’s a line backing up which could clear if they’d just step six inches to the right. Maybe it was the guy taking video of the CGI re-enactment of the Battle of Kadesh, straight off the History Channel, who bristled when anyone stepped in front of him (in the *remember* cramped space). Maybe it was all the text written in two languages, the push to get people into the gift shop, or the tone deaf versions of the story. Ramses, angry at the rebellion of the Nubians, soon brought them back under his command. i.e. Ramses enslaved and subjugated people in another land, who didn’t like it, but he soon brutalized and murdered enough of them that they submitted once more, to be put to work building monuments to him. #NotParticularlyWoke
Maybe it was having to pay through the nose for the privilege of this headache, not just in the tickets, but the parking, the restaurant ($4 cans of soda), and the (more expensive than the museum ticket) “Virtual Reality” experience. Because, of course, I had to see what all that fuss was about, which meant having to rush a bit through the exhibit in order to make that entry time, only to stand for a half hour waiting to go into the little room with the swively-chairs for my ten-minute show.
The “Virtual Reality” experience (TM) was hyped as an awe-inspiring thrill that would make you feel like you were there. But the ghost of Ramses’ wife Nefertari seemed absurdly buxom, and the movement through the tombs tended to take you through walls rather than among them. And the giant ghost which ends up chasing you through the desert (oh, Spoiler Alert, so sorry) was the plasticized cherry on top of this cheesy sundae. To get a really good sense of the grandeur of Abu Simbel or Ramses’ Egypt, I recommend instead watching either versions of “Death on the Nile,” or the opening scene to “The Fifth element.”
To be sure, there were wondrous things in the exhibit. I was fascinated by the ostraca, the stone “scratch paper” used for draft drawings or games by the workmen. Near the end of the exhibit, the full sarcophagi of kings not named Ramses sported delicate carvings and more impressive jewelry, probably because they hadn’t been looted as much. If it had been possible to go through it with fewer people at less than a feverish pace, I might not be complaining as much. Or if any of the discoveries felt spontaneous rather than meticulously planned to impress me, may I might have been more impressed.
It’s my enduring gripe with Disney, that when you’re on their property, they’re constantly telling you how much you’re enjoying the Disney experience and how you can do more Disney things for more money that will extend your Disney-cation. This wasn’t Disneyland, true, but the influence was there. But I know I was not raised on video, so perhaps this is what is required for those who are. They have to have all the high-tech dancing baloney, otherwise they can’t just stand and look at a beautifully carved silver tomb. Plus, Disneyland one-day tickets are now over a hundred bucks, so maybe this lesser-cost version is their substitute.
It was with great relief that after the chair-shaking from the Virtual Reality event, I wandered upstairs to the other parts of the De Young. Here, I was treated to room upon room of other artifacts, maybe not 3000 years old but in their own way entrancing and mysterious. The Lhola Amira exhibit, for example, combined African music and singing with a tactile and visual experience. You could walk through the hanging beads and read the words of poets rearranged in stunning visual hangings.
I was particularly taken by a wall full of masks from Gabon. These were reliquaries, carved wood and metal masks that sat atop coffins or displays for funerals. A gift from Richard Scheller, a Genentech executive and art enthusiast, these fascinated me in their similar style, despite having been carved by different people over dozens of years.
Another wing was displaying vessels from the Mayans, beaded vases from the Hopis, and a wall mural dug up under Mexico City. Yet another held the regular collection, including some of my favorite paintings, like “Rainy Season in the Tropics” by Frederic Church. The beautiful part of seeing all these paintings and artifacts was that there was NOBODY THERE. You could gaze at the art of Gabon as long as you wanted. You could practically touch the 1000-year-old mural from Teotihuacan because there was no docent to be found.
It was not lost on me that you could stand in front of all these African artifacts and marvel at the skill of their creators, while a crowd of people was hunching around other African artifacts that were a little bit older but not necessarily more interesting. You might say, But Ramses was Egyptian king for 60 years and far more impressive, but do we know enough about the kings (or queens) of Gabon to know whether they were impressive or not? I bet the “Virtual Reality” experience of Gabon or Mauritania could be as interesting. Timbuktu was also legendary for a reason, a city in the middle of the Sahara. How about a chair-shaking ride up the Congo and on camelback to see the ancient cities inside Mali?
So here is the ultimate museum hack. Go to a museum that is holding a fancy-schmancy, high-tech crowded exhibit of a few artifacts, but instead of going to THAT exhibit, go to the opposite end of the building. Because there will be nobody there. And it may be just as entrancing.
They say a city in the desert lies“Mad About You,” by Sting
The vanity of an ancient king
The city lies in broken pieces
Where the wolf howls, and the vultures sing…