Meet Kha and Merit: A Wonderful Documentary On A Couple From Ancient Egypt

Being something of an amateur Egyptologist ever since I was little, I’m always on the lookout for things like interesting lectures on or collections of Ancient Egyptian antiquities. So if you’re as interested in this subject as I am, I highly recommend that you check out a two-part documentary from the BBC which I saw recently. “Ancient Egypt: Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings”, hosted by Egyptologist Dr. Joann Fletcher, is one of the most interesting, engaging films I’ve ever seen on Ancient Egypt.

Although it touches on the lives of the Egyptian pharaohs, the heart of this film is Dr. Fletcher’s exploration of the life and death of a well-off, but non-aristocratic married couple. The discovery of their tomb a century ago was considered to be one of the greatest archaeological finds in history. And I must confess that, despite my interest in Egyptology, I had never heard of it until I saw this documentary.

Kha and Merit lived (very roughly speaking) around 1400 B.C., in a village near the Valley of the Kings which later became known as Deir el-Medina. Kha was an architect and oversaw the work on the royal tombs being constructed nearby, while Merit was his wife and the mother of his four children. Because of his position, Kha provided his family with a good living, and the family enjoyed a more comfortable lifestyle than most. Their tomb in the hills overlooking the village had somehow been missed by grave robbers, so when it was discovered in 1906, everything was still in place, exactly as it had been left when it was sealed.

The contents eventually found their way to the Egyptian Museum in Turin, and if you have any appreciation at all for cultural anthropology, you will appreciate the wealth of material for study that their gravesite provided. Not only are there the mummies, masks, and coffins that we all associate with Ancient Egyptian burials, but many items from Kha and Merit’s daily lives were buried with them as well. The collection includes the beds they slept on, the chairs they sat in, the board games they played, and even Merit’s box of cosmetics. One jar, for example, still has Merit’s black eyeliner and application wand inside, while another still smells of her favorite perfume. The find really was an extraordinary time capsule from the distant past.

What is unique in Dr. Fletcher’s presentation of this material, is that I’ve never seen an Egyptologist personalize the lives being examined in the way that she does. She looks at Kha and Merit not merely as subjects of scientific study, but as real people. She doesn’t focus on the documented achievements of Kha, even though we are made aware of them, but rather on things that most of us can understand from ordinary life.

For example, Dr. Fletcher walks us through the ruins of what may have been Kha and Merit’s home, describing what activities would have taken place in the different rooms. She shows us the sitting room, for example, where Merit and her girlfriends in the village might have sat down to have a morning gossip, while another room is where Kha and his friends would have sat into the night drinking beer and playing games after the children had gone to bed. She shows us what an Ancient Egyptian fully-equipped kitchen looked like, complete with brick oven and primitive refrigerator, and how Merit would have baked the bread that the family ate every day, as well as kept Kha’s beer cool for when he got home from work.

Dr. Fletcher also explores the love that Kha and Merit had for each other, not only as husband and wife, but also as parents. Merit’s only daughter, for example, who was named for her mother, is shown very tenderly looking after her parents in the family funerary chapel and tomb art. When we learn that Merit died rather unexpectedly – possibly from an accident or a sudden illness – before Kha, the family must have been devastated. Dr. Fletcher suggests that, as the only daughter, Merit the younger would have looked after her father until he died, as the art commissioned by her father would seem to suggest.

There is also a moment in the documentary that I can relate to, when Dr. Fletcher visits the tomb of Pharaoh Amenhotep III for the first time. It’s a tomb whose construction Kha oversaw, and a place that she knows well through research and pictures, but it is not usually open to visitors due to ongoing restoration work. When she is able to go inside and look around at the magnificent wall paintings, Dr. Fletcher gets a little choked up, and apologizes for being unprofessional on camera – but I’m glad they kept this in the final film. I recently had a very similar experience, when I visited the Pantheon of the Kings at the Escorial for the first time, so I immediately sympathized with her. Nerds sometimes react to things that we’ve studied closely in rather an unexpected way.

If I were to fault anything in this film, it’s the conclusion that a major difference between Kha and Merit and ourselves is a belief in an afterlife, or that this life is merely a preparation for the life to come – something that Dr. Fletcher posits a modern Westerner can’t understand. That statement is perhaps true for a majority of British academics, who stopped believing in God a long time ago, but it did seem a bit unnecessary to conclude this otherwise admirable film with a somewhat dismissive, albeit passing, observation on spirituality. Still, if you love Ancient Egypt, or even if you’re just interested in history in general, this documentary is well worth your time.

​So Long, Serota: Another Art Museum Returns To Reason

With the stepping down of Sir Nicholas Serota, after a thirty-year effort to turn the Tate Gallery from a dull if respectable art museum into a schizophrenic, self-congratulatory fashion brand, the art world has been relieved of one of the most overrated talents to strut upon the world stage since Herodias persuaded her daughter to commit murder through striptease.

Although he was not the first person to implement it, one of Serota’s most influential legacies was the thematic “re-hang”, which was adopted by many collections around the world. This involves the rearranging of works in a museum’s permanent collection to more resemble temporary, thematic exhibitions. The resulting juxtapositions are based not on the chronological and stylistic developments which provide a logical framework for the study of art history, but rather on an attempt to explore idiosyncratic subjects or even personal feelings, often as selected by a particular curator.

To be fair, there are merits in not always sticking to a strictly linear timeline in the display of art, at least in certain circumstances. Historic homes are one instance; temporary exhibitions exploring particular subjects are another. For the most part however, at least before Serota et al, public institutions usually stuck with logically-assembled displays for the works in their permanent collections. Thus, if you visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Egyptian art collection is – surprise – displayed in the Egyptian galleries, while the French Impressionists are not.

Like all fads however, the a-historical display of art seems to be headed to the clearance racks. Regular readers will recall that a couple of years back, I reported on how Tate Britain, which was the original nucleus of Serota’s powerbase, rejected his policies and went back to its role as a preserver and educator on the subject of British art history. About a year later, I applauded the new chairman of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Met, who rejected the idea of turning the public art museum into something “mushy”.  

Now the Art Newspaper is reporting that, a little more than a decade after The Getty “Serota-ized” itself, the powerhouse Los Angeles museum is going back to an historically-grounded display of its permanent collection:

The Australian director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Timothy Potts, proposed the rehang when he was first recruited to lead the Los Angeles institution in 2012. Themed galleries are “fine as a social history of art”, says Potts, who is a specialist in ancient art. But chronology, he says, is “the only way you can understand the direction of stylistic change”.

The Getty’s return to chronology is part of a wider trend in US museums. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, reopened its East Building last September with a clear historical narrative of Modern art. In New York, the Museum of Modern Art recently closed a year-long presentation of works from the 1960s, installed by year across nine galleries.

Hopefully even more institutions will be following suit, now that Serota is gone, and the teachings of his disciples have been anathematized by more traditional cultural institutions. I could care less what happens in museums of contemporary art, of course. But it would be nice if the leadership of traditional art institutions such as The Prado, a museum whose re-hang becomes a more painful experience every time I visit, would realize that it is time to abandon the faddish, and return to the serious study and presentation of the works entrusted to their care.

Lucy Worsley: An Appreciation

Most people spend their lunch hours…well, eating lunch, I suppose. I don’t normally have time to take an hour, as it happens, and while I do manage to eat at some point, I tend to spend my midday repast watching documentaries online. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been delighted by several television programs hosted by British historian Lucy Worsley. Dr. Worsley is Joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, the charitable institution that runs and maintains several famous royal residences in Britain, including Hampton Court Palace and the Tower of London.

A television documentary charting the origins of the palace of Versailles, or the rise and fall of the Romanov dynasty, might seem the sort of thing that only a real history nerd could love, and I make no apologies for being just that sort of nerd. Yet Dr. Worsley is not the sort of dry, boring history professor that one might expect to tackle such subjects. She’s smart, sassy, and just a tiny bit saucy, so that you never quite know what she is going to do next.

Take “If Walls Could Talk”, a four-part series about the domestic history of the English home. Each episode tackles a different room of the house: living room, bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen. Dr. Worsley traces the development of each room from the Middle Ages up to the present day, and during the course of her journey she not only educates the viewer, she manages to make him laugh as well.

In “The Bedroom” for example, I learnt the origin of a number of common phrases in English whose origins I never stopped to question before, such as “hitting the hay” or “sleep tight”. We get to see what went into the construction of a bed from the Tudor period, as well as some of the bizarre nighttime rituals which our forbearers engaged in to try to keep both critters and evil spirits away, when they turned in for the night. In order to prevent what otherwise could have turned into a rather dry presentation of facts from becoming dull however, Dr. Worsely plays dress-up, and goes about doing some rather unusual things.

In “The Bathroom”, in order to demonstrate the bizarre 18th century medical advice which recommended sea water as a cure-all, she dons a Georgian bathing costume, downs an atrocious-looking drink made of milk and sea water – “This tastes exactly like vomit,” she remarks, in her wonderfully unique accent, after spitting out the noxious concoction – and then plunges into a very cold and rough-looking sea. Later in the same episode, in order to demonstrate how far bathroom development had come by the Art Deco period, she checks into a suite at Claridge’s Hotel in London, gets a period makeover (including having her hair set in a Marcel wave), and shows how a glamorous film star of the 1930’s would have relaxed in a state-of-the-art luxury hotel bathroom, complete with cocktail and bubble bath.

Lest one think that this is merely history as popular entertainment, Dr. Worsley manages to bring some real historical analysis into these programs, by examining not only the motivations of the people involved, but also by looking more closely at some of the documents or objects associated with them. In her survey of the Hanoverian monarchs for example, she draws our attention to the almost hereditary problem of father-son strife that occurred during the reigns of the first four Kings George, where each father as he ascended the throne managed to alienate his son and heir into setting up his own, rival court. This allowed rival factions in Parliament to politically manipulate king and crown prince into casting their support in one direction or another, with respect to the development of policy.

In tracing the time that the Mozart and his family spent in London when the great composer was just a child prodigy, Dr. Worsley reads to us from letters which Mozart’s father Leopold wrote back to Austria, giving a foreigner’s perspective on the moreys of English society at the time. She also shows us how propaganda, published in the Georgian equivalent of the tabloid press, was used both by Mozart’s detractors, as well as by the Mozart family itself, to affect the boy genius’ career. And because she herself is a competent pianist, Dr. Worsley gets to sit down at the keyboard with musicians and musicologists, in order to look at some of the complex compositions coming from the mind of this wunderkind.

Many of Dr. Worsely’s documentaries are available to stream on YouTube, but her work can also be found through PBS and other sources. I encourage you to take the time to seek her out. You’ll not only learn a great deal, while appreciating her rather impish sense of humor, but you’ll have a great time while doing so.