Images of Egypt. The curators’ take

Historical Museum, Oslo

photo: Eirik Arff Gulseth Bøhn

In July 1798, General Bonaparte invaded Egypt with an army of soldiers, engineers and scholars. One month later, Admiral Nelson destroyed the French fleet in the Battle of the Nile. Situated between Europe and India, Egypt now became the Middle East for European empires. Since then, images of Egyptian landscapes and monuments have circulated as fantasy and reality in the West, while physical parts of that same landscape were carried off to cities like London, Paris, Turin, Berlin, and New York.

Alongside the influx of monuments and antiquities came a flow of news reports, sketches and prints, panoramas, photographs and postcards. For a Western audience, the exotic became familiar. Remote objects became part of domestic interiors. The arrival of colossal Egyptian monuments in museums and cities was heralded by reports of impossible endeavours in the emerging illustrated press, as tales of technological innovation made the headlines. The relocation of Egyptian antiquity hinged on grand schemes of logistics and engineering, fuelled by speed, determination and diplomacy. World leaders continued to radically alter the pharaonic past throughout the Cold War, when political powerplay came to the fore during the Suez Crisis and the construction of the Aswan High Dam.

Our ambition for Images of Egypt was to showcase an ancient landscape in radical transformation. Centrally placed on a divan covering the majority of the gallery floor was the Napoleonic Description de l’Égypte, published in Paris over the course of two decades from 1809. Among the world’s most monumental publishing ventures, it documented Egypt’s architecture and natural history in twenty-three enormous volumes of texts and images. We displayed two of the Antiquités volumes devoted to ancient Egyptian architecture from the edition the from the edition General Bernadotte, from 1818 King Karl Johan of Sweden and Norway, received as a gift from the French state. These rare volumes, a loan from the Royal Library in Stockholm, was displayed alongside 20 unbound sheets in mammoth folio from the first edition, making a sea of paper liberated from the constraints of protective glass. During the production of the Description de l’Égypte, the emperor commissioned a dinner service from the porcelain manufacturers in Sèvres, featuring the same images. The set was intended as a divorce present to Josephine, who, however, eventually turned the gift down. The copious set was subsequently caught in an unintended theatre of action, and with terrible political irony, as it was presented by the restored Louis XVIII to the Duke of Wellington after the Battle of Waterloo, eventually ending up largely intact in Apsley House, London. We showed the plate depicting a temple on the Elephantine Island, Aswan, transferred to porcelain from a drawing then being prepared for publication in Paris. The temple was demolished in 1822, and so this very plate – a generous joint loan from the Musée national de la céramique, Sèvres, and the Musée national des châteaux de Malmaison & Bois-Préau – might also be seen as an act of preservation in porcelain, a last transference and documentation of a lost archaeological past. The French prints also meandered to the stage: first to the German architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s revolutionary set designs for the 1816 Berlin premiere of Mozart’s The Magic Flute; later into British artist David Hockney’s stage sets for the same opera at Glydenbourne in 1978. We showed a number of widely circulated acquaints by Schinkel, printed in Potsdam in 1847, and Hockney’s paintings-cum-models – loaned from the Hockney Foundation in Los Angeles. The juxtaposition of nineteenth-century architectural history and post-war contemporary art revealed unexplored connections, as did the opera designs’ spatial proximity to the plates from the Description on the adjacent divan, from which both artists drew their vocabulary.

Testament to the engineering feats intrinsic to the transfer of Egyptian monuments to Europe, a scale model from around 1850 documented in minute detail naval engineer Apollinaire Lebas’ heroic operation of relocating the Luxor obelisk to the Place de la Concorde, Paris. The miniature forms part of a series of models that demonstrated the logistical endeavour of the obelisks’ lowering in Luxor and erection in Paris, lent by the Musée des arts et métiers. Luxor was also moved, albeit virtually, in the now-lost film set built by Cecil B. DeMille for his epic silent movie The Ten Commandments (1923). Recently, American archaeologists have unearthed DeMille’s shattered plaster antiquities from the Californian desert. Opposite the Hockney maquettes, we displayed a plaster paw on a plinth from a recently excavated sphinx, a delicious Hollywood antique perched in front of a projection from the film showing the reconstructed avenue of sphinxes leading up to DeMille’s monumental pylon, framed within one of the art-nouveau windows of the gallery.

At the bottom end of the gallery, a triptych of historical news-footage created an image and soundscape depicting the deconstruction and relocation of Egyptian monuments by president Nasser after the Suez crisis, and later by the UNESCO during the construction of the Aswan High Dam.

When the blockbuster exhibition The Treasures of Tutankhamun toured the United States in the 1970s, the model workshop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on direct orders from its entrepreneurial director Thomas Hoving, made replicas of artefacts from the tomb to finance the costly loan from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. These reproductions have become collectors’ items, confirming the Pharaoh’s status as a modern superstar of antiquity. In Oslo, visitors could marvel at the most iconic of these artefacts, the gilded porcelain goddess Selket. Reproductions also serve the cause of preservation. The technologically advanced facsimile of the sarcophagus of Seti I was produced by the Madrid-based Factum Foundation for Digital Technology in Conservationin 2017 for the bicentenary of the discovery of the tomb in the Valley of the Kings, as part of the Theban Necropolis Preservation Initiative. In the gallery, it shone with the effect of translucent alabaster at one end of the gallery, figuring as the most recent among two hundred years of western images of Egypt.

Together and across media, these precious objects told the story of modern Egypt as image, as invention and as geopolitical reality. None of them were made in Egypt, yet they are part of the stream of images that burst out of Egypt in the trail of Napoleon and Nelson and the Franco-British race to control the Middle East and its antiquities.

Mari Lending, Tim Anstey and Eirik Arff Gulseth Bøhn, curators

Images of Egypt was curated by Mari Lending, Tim Anstey and Eirik Arff Gulseth Bøhn. The exhibition was produced under PriArc: Printing the Past. Architecture, Print Culture, and Uses of the Past in Modern Europe a research project directed by the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, as part of the European Union Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA) programme. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, and the Museum of Cultural History, Oslo, are museum partners in PriArc. The book, Images of Egypt, edited by Mari Lending, Eirik Arff Gulseth Bøhn and Tim Anstey (Oslo: Pax, 2018), can be ordered at

Photos: Eirik Arff Gulseth Bøhn



Originally posted February 17, 2019. Latest revision February 28, 2019.

© PriArc 2021. All rights reserved.