Last week I traveled to ancient Egypt. It was an easy trip – no COVID tests, airport security lines or weather delays. I just climbed into a cinematic chair, strapped on a high-res VR headset, and was whisked away to Queen Nefertari’s lavish tomb, a maze of chambers covered in vivid floor-to-ceiling paintings depicting life and times. of the Queen.
A loquacious apparition of Nefertari herself, floating in the air and draped in a diaphanous blue robe, pointed out notable sights with a graceful sweep of her digital arms.
The captivating virtual reality experience is part of Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs, a dazzling, tech-rich exhibit at San Francisco’s de Young Museum that illuminates the life and accomplishments of Ramses II. Over 3,300 years ago, the famous pharaoh ruled Egypt for 67 years at a time of great prosperity and empire for the country, and the exhibition features the epic royal statues from the Ramesses II era and gold funerary masks to prove it.
“The temples he erected, the statues he commissioned, the monuments he inscribed throughout Egypt and Nubia, the mortuary temple and the royal tomb he built are reminders of his earthly power and its closeness to the gods,” said Renée Dreyfus, curator of ancient art at the Beaux-Arts. San Francisco Museums, said in a statement. “The proliferation of his name has caused him to become almost synonymous with royalty.”
The traveling exhibition was curated by archaeologist Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s former Minister of Antiquities, and runs at the de Young until February 12, 2023 before continuing to London and Paris. It brings together more than 180 remarkably preserved ancient treasures from the time of Ramses II, as well as hundreds of years before and after him: sarcophagi, ornate tomb relics, pearl jewelry, a mongoose and cats, mummified and probably presented as an offering to the gods. Some of the objects never left Egypt.
The exhibit also features its share of 21st century flourishes to make details of the 19th Dynasty more tangible and accessible. Drone photography, for example, contributes to the image of a dynamic multimedia recreation of one of Ramesses the Great’s greatest military victories, the 1275 BCE Battle of Kadesh against the Hittite army of what is today Turkey.
A gallery contains the ornately decorated wooden outer coffin of an elite craftsman who helped build and decorate royal tombs during the reign of Ramses II and his father, Seti I. Giant screens line the walls of the gallery and suspended from its ceiling, project the coffin in an elaborate manner. scenes painted as theatrically lit photo murals. Smaller displays hang above display cases containing other ancient artifacts, showcasing every detail.
In this age of immersive exhibits that can immerse you in a painter’s world through 65 million pixels, care must be taken not to let the technological components eclipse the art, says Thomas P. Campbell, director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
“But if done right,” Campbell told me, “the technological components will add useful context and enhance the visitor’s experience, and can act as a bridge to the art, an invitation for new audiences to connect with works of art in our galleries.”
Indeed, nothing captures immediacy here quite like the VR experience, which serves as a tantalizing time capsule of Egypt’s famed Golden Age, thanks to a HP Reverb G2 Gaming Headset.
I’ve been on a few VR adventures, but none are as multi-sensory as this one, which takes you through 360-degree sandstorms to reach two monuments Ramses II built for his beloved wife Nefertari.
Comfortable chairs that twist, turn and shake make it almost impossible to believe you’re not actually floating through the entrance to the massive rock-cut temples of Abu Simbel, just like the digital representation of the Queen .
As I descended the steep steps to Nefertari’s famous tomb in one of her chambers, I thought I might fall out of my chair and down the stairs onto the stone floor. I constantly turned my head to catch the view over both my shoulders. A scent component even delivered quick rushes of six scents, including Frankincense, Lavender, and Gunpowder, through a small dispenser wired into the chair. Ahhh, the aromas of 1200 BCE.
VR hasn’t exactly become the consumer technology some predicted, but with the right hardware and software, VR can really shine as an art form, especially in short experiences like this. this, titled Ramses + Nefertari: Journey to Osiris and produced by World Heritage Exhibitions.
“The VR experience is educational in purpose and really brings to life the stories, people and places our visitors encounter in the exhibit,” Campbell said. “With a fun twist, of course.”
The dreamlike experience lasted over 10 minutes, and I honestly didn’t want it to end.
Those who feel the same can be heartened to learn that a portion of the proceeds from exhibit tickets will help fund ongoing efforts to excavate and restore the 700-foot-long Tomb of Ramses II. Ancient grave robbers looted it and the floods then severely damaged it.
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