Ramses the Great gets rock star treatment at SF’s de Young Museum

It’s as if the Discovery Channel is moving into Golden Gate Park to celebrate Pharaoh Ramses II and ancient Egyptian culture.

It’s a show complete with full-scale video, drone photography, deep-voiced narration, and a soundtrack in the galleries of the de Young Museum.

Here is “Ramses the Great and the gold of the pharaohs”. It’s not just an exhibition, but a multimedia production created by World Heritage Exhibitionsa subsidiary in Singapore Villeneonwho also shot shows on Cleopatra and Machu Picchu.

There are also plenty of authentic Egyptian artifacts, though they are sometimes overshadowed by the video presentations and backlit images.

Ramesses II ruled for 67 years from 1292 BC. AD, so there is a large amount of material to be found in Egyptian museums. That means a somewhat cramped route through the exhibit and a $40 premium ticket price. “Ramses” is on view at de Young until February 12.

The production certainly brings ancient Egypt to life, starting with an entrance film that condenses the accomplishments of Ramses (at the pinnacle of Egypt’s power) into a four-minute, Hollywood-style mini-epic. Then the dimly lit path takes visitors to another world.

A multimedia presentation at the de Young Museum illustrates the military actions carried out by Egypt during the reign of Ramesses II. (World Heritage Exhibits/Museums of Fine Arts of San Francisco)

“Immersive” is the current buzzword for museum exhibitions. This show offers a distinct 10-minute virtual reality experience for adventurers. But the more modest production techniques, at their best, explore and explain the history and culture of ancient Egypt better than simple labels.

A video identifies the goddess Isis and the god of the underworld Osiris, seen on a painted and gilded limestone relief. Another video begins with a ruined temple, then recreates it in its original form, complete with brightly painted ornaments. An installation on three screens replays the decisive battle of Ramses against the Hittites on the Orontes river.

Stone fragments, models and large-scale photographs depict the majestic temples built by Ramesses – some usurped by ancient rulers. Ramesses built seven temples in Nubia along a stretch of the Nile, including two carved into the red sandstone cliffs of Abu Simbel.

The centerpiece of a dazzling display is the outer coffin by artist Sennedjem, who prepared coffins for Ramses and Seti, the pharaoh’s father. Elaborate paintings follow his journey through the underworld, complete with magic spells taken from Egyptian texts. But no need to squint. The walls and ceiling of the gallery carry bright, magnified close-ups of detail.

Objects that would be comfortable in more traditional exhibits benefit from visual insight. Among them is a carved and painted limestone block showing Ramses, ax in hand, about to strike down three of Egypt’s traditional enemies: Syrian, Nubian and Libyan.

And then there are the mummies.

“Exhibited for the first time”, announces the label, mummified cats (three), a lion cub, a mongoose, a crocodile and beetles, as well as a video explaining the veneration of Egyptians for these animals. These are recent finds from a cemetery near the ancient city of Memphis. Archaeologists believe that new excavations could uncover 15 million animal mummies.

Ramses’ own mummy was saved – although not on tour – but his grave was looted and damaged by the floods. To create the atmosphere of a pharaoh’s burial place, the walls of Ramses’ father’s tomb have been reproduced and a gold death mask of former Middle Kingdom ruler Senwosrat I is displayed.

The smaller artifacts may be overlooked in the hype of this production, but they’re worth seeking out. There are earthenware tiles, in still bright colors, representing war captives. There is an elaborate necklace, as well as rings and earrings, in gold and carnelian, with beads in the shape of poppy heads.

The power of Ramesses is suggested by carvings and fragments of obelisk tops, with the history of the monuments also detailed. The first sight is an eight-foot-tall red granite head of Ramses from a colossal statue. A label indicates that it was “reworked” from the statue of an earlier king. Ditto for the upper part of an obelisk “usurped by Ramses”.

An impressive sculpture honoring Ramesses is a half-human, half-lion sphinx that once stood in the temple of Amun Ra, king of the gods, in the famous Karnak temple complex. Another, installed as the “epilogue” to the exhibit, is a 6-foot-tall fragment of the top portion of a colossal statue.

Young’s installation, although produced by World Heritage Exhibitions, was curated by Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s former Minister of Antiquities, and locally by Renee Dreyfus, Fine Arts Museums curator in charge of ancient art.

Dreyfus worked on de Young’s two popular King Tut exhibits, but she said Ramses had a special role.

“The temples he erected, the statues he commissioned, the monuments he inscribed throughout Egypt and Nubia, and the mortuary temple and royal tomb he built, recall his earthly powers and his closeness to the gods,” she said. “The proliferation of his name has led him to become almost synonymous with royalty.”


Through: 12 February

Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.

Hours: 9.30 a.m. to 5.15 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday

Admission: $25 to $40; 10-minute virtual reality experience, $18.

Health and security: Proof of vaccination not required for general access but required for some on-site events, masks recommended but not required

Contact: 415-750-3600, deyoung.famsf.org.

About Carlos V. Mitchell

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