The first thing that strikes you about Pharaoh, the NGV’s Winter Masterpieces exhibition, is its sheer scale. More than 500 objects chart a 3000-year period of ancient Egyptian history: from the earliest artefacts of the first pharaohs to the later years of the Greco-Roman era.

Pharaoh highlights the grandeur and artistry of ancient Egypt through large-scale statues, sculpture, architecture and jewellery that reflects historical figures, mythical gods and everyday Egyptians. Bringing such a massive exhibition to the NGV has been an eight-year project.

“It’s the [British Museum’s] biggest loan and that was obviously quite a challenge at a lot of different levels in terms of building the narrative, but also for conservation, transport and the logistics,” says Marie Vandenbeusch, the exhibition's curator from the British Museum.

Never miss a moment. Make sure you're subscribed to our newsletter today.


The narrative she has built avoids a straight timeline. Instead visitors are introduced to themes, styles and ideas. “I wanted something a bit more thematic, but I still wanted to have this feeling of longevity of the civilisation,” she says.

That longevity is obvious from the first display: a 5000-year-old ivory label depicting one of the earliest pharaohs, Den, with imagery that is relevant for the entire civilisation. “What I love with that piece is it shows the king in that very evocative position [smiting his enemies], which you’re going to find throughout 3000 years,” says Vandenbeusch.

Grandeur, of course, remains a theme across Pharaoh. One section shows, in intimidating scale, the ancient rulers’ reverence for their gods. There are 10 massive statues of the goddess Sekhmet – a relatively modest selection of the 730 built by pharaoh Amenhotep III. “Sekhmet, you can translate her name as ‘the one who is powerful’ because she’s kind of destructive and you needed to appease her,” says Vandenbeusch. “And by having two statues of her for every day of the year, that was a way for Amenhotep III to appease her.”

Other large-scale pieces sit at the centre of each room, such as a near-pristine sculpture of Sety II – the most complete in the British Museum’s collection – and a larger-than-life limestone statue of Ramses II.

Pharaoh also personalises ancient Egyptians.

Ancient kings and members of their society are presented not just as statues and engravings, but as real people who inhabited a long-gone world. One section, dedicated to ancient jewellery, bridges the gap between us and them through intricately crafted necklaces, collars and rings that would have been worn in life and kept close in death.

“What I really love with those pieces is the idea of intimacy,” says Vandenbeusch. “You have to imagine that people were actually wearing those different objects during their life or wanted to have them after death to protect them.”

As visitors weave through the exhibition’s rooms, this is what Vandenbeusch is most excited to share – not just examples of a distant society, but the chance to actually relate to the ancient Egyptian people.

“What I want people to get out of this is to try to understand – who were those kings? Who are the people around them, the people beyond this very iconic figure? You had millions of anonymous people and I tried to tell a little of their stories through some of those objects. I hope that’s something that people are going to see through something a bit more intimate.”

Broadsheet is a proud media partner of the National Gallery of Victoria. Pharaoh runs from June 14 to October 6. Tickets are available now.

For your exclusive after-hours viewing of the NGV's Pharaoh exhibition and in-conversation with Broadsheet editor and Dr Miranda Wallace, Senior Curator of International Exhibition Projects at NGV on Tuesday June 25, sign up to Broadsheet Access.