Curator's Introduction

"The exhibition explores the perennially fascinating subject of the ancient Egyptians’ attitudes to immortality. Through the objects and inscriptions found in their tombs – many of them more than 3000 years old – a window will be opened on to their hopes and fears about what lay beyond death and how ritual and magic were believed to enable them to pass through the dangers of the supernatural realm.

Drawing on the unparalleled collections of the British Museum, Secrets of the Afterlife offers a unique chance to see mummies, gilded masks, painted coffins, amulets and jewellery of the highest artistic quality. Visitors will also have the rare opportunity to see the actual texts of the magical spells and prayers which the Egyptians regarded as the key to eternal life. These include copies of the ‘Book of the Dead’ and the ‘Book of Caverns’, written on papyrus rolls and mummy-bandages and illustrated with vivid pictures of the gods and demons that every Egyptian expected to meet in the hereafter.

Following an introductory section on the Egyptians’ relationship with their gods, the exhibits are arranged so that the visitor can follow each stage of the journey from death to afterlife.  The 2,600 year-old mummy of the priest Irthorru, complete with its lifelike mask and beadwork trappings, reveals the secrets of the embalmer’s workshop. Statues and magical objects evoke the rituals at the tomb to reunite the spirit with its body and to nourish the dead throughout eternity. The magical power of word and image are explained through the amulets placed around the body and the spells written on papyri and coffins. These texts describe the features of the mysterious Netherworld and equipped the deceased with protection against the many dangers that he would encounter there. They include incantations against snakes and crocodiles, and spells to turn oneself from human form into a falcon, heron or swallow. The journey culminates in the final test of judgement, where the heart was weighed in a balance to determine whether the dead person’s life-record merited admission to paradise or condemnation to a grisly fate in the jaws of the monstrous Devourer.

By explaining the underlying motivations for the making of mummies and the rich provisioning of tombs, this exhibition offers an unusually penetrating survey of the Egyptians’ world of the dead. It has already attracted large audiences in London and at venues in Japan, and the present version has been specially adapted for the WAM, Perth, which will be its only Australian venue."

John Taylor
Curator, Ancient Egypt and Sudan
The British Museum