In the Light of Amarna

June 5, 2013


One of the most famous museum artefacts in Berlin, is the bust of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, which ‘lives’ in the Neues Museum (within the Egyptian Museum collection) on Museum Island. She even features in several of #MuseumBaby’s children’s picture books about Berlin. No wonder then, that the museum has put on a grand exhibition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of her discovery.


The exhibition actually opened last December, exactly on the 100th anniversary itself, but I didn’t manage to get around to seeing it until March and it’s already been extended until August. Obviously Nefertiti herself is the highlight of the exhibition, and get’s her own hall no less, but the rest of the exhibition all about life in Ancient Egypt at her time and the archaeological dig itself that lef to her discovery is pretty interesting too.

In the introduction, we learn that Amarna was the name of the new capital city established by Pharaoh Akhenaten in Egypt during the late Eighteenth Dynasty (1550 – 1292 BC). Akhenaten also happened to be Nefertiti’s husband, but a timeline and family tree help you to get your head around the royal couple’s family relations. In the section about “Living Worlds” we find out more about Amarna, through a reconstructed city map. Amarna was abandoned after Akhenaten’s death and the most valuable artefacts and furniture were taken. This misleadingly gives the picture of a declining metropolis in the archaeological findings, showing just how important contextual information can be. “Religious Worlds” sheds some more light on the doctrines of the new religion Akhenaten founded, which prompted him to build the city in the first place. And the section on “Craftsmanship” shows off some of the stunning skills and designs in faience (a type of ceramics), leather, metal, jewellery and stonework – “one of the most exceptionally developed crafts in Egypt since the 4th millennium BC”.

Moving on then from life in Ancient Egypt, the exhibition takes you through the archaeological excavations at the Amarna site, and the workshop of Thutmose where the painted bust of Nefertiti was discovered on 6th December 1912 by an excavation team of the German Oriental Society. The sole financer and permit holder of the excavation – James Simon – donated all finds allotted to the German team in the official divisions, to the Egyptian Museum in Berlin in 1920. Ludwig Borchardt, the director of the excavation, wrote in his diary:

“Life-sized painted bust of the queen, 47cm high. With the blue wig cut straight on top, and garlanded by a ribbon half-way up. Colours look like freshly painted. Really wonderful work. No use describing it, you have to see it.” (museum’s translation)

Prior to donating the excavation finds, Simon made them available as permanent loans, and they were shown in their entirety, save for the famous bust, at the Egyptian Museum in 1913. Just over ten years later, in 1924, a newly constructed exhibition in the museum showed Nefertiti as its centre piece. Little is actually known about the woman behind the name, including her eventual fate, but Nefertiti’s bust has become an icon of beauty across the whole world. The exhibition closes with a look the press coverage Nefertiti has generated – including a campaign against the museum director’s plan to repatriate the bust in exchange for other artefacts in 1930 – and the fascination that Nefertiti holds until today, both in Egypt itself and worldwide. As the exhibition states, the “scientific, literary, artistic and popular discussions have taken every possible form”, from art object to advertising medium, as the subject of literature, theatre, operan and film, and as part of mass produced souvenirs such as this badge from the Neues Museum’s gift shop:


The exhibition “In the Light of Amarna: 100 Years of the Nefertiti Discovery” runs until 4th August 2013. Tickets can be booked online in advance. But if you happen to miss the exhibition, the Nefertiti bust itself is on permanent display.


Disclosure: I work for the Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, to which the Neues Museum belongs, but I had no involvement with the Amarna exhibition and all views expressed here are my own.

, ,


  1. Museums and the Movies: Hart to Hart | Museum Diary - June 7, 2013

    […] “Very Nefertiti!” (you can find out more about Nefertiti in my previous post about the Neues Museum). Why Jennifer seems to be the only one of the guests dressed up remains to be a mystery – […]

  2. Museum City Guide: My Top 5 in Berlin | Museum Diary - July 9, 2013

    […] As I said at the beginning, it was really difficult to narrow my choices down to just five museums. Other favourites that didn’t quite make it in to the top 5 include the wonderfully geeky Computerspielemuseum (Computer Games Museum), the Medizinhistorisches Museum (Medical History Museum) with its pathological and anatomical specimens, the Museum für Kommunikation – which I would recommend foremost for their excellent temporary exhibitions and their great hands on gallery for kids – and, of course, Museum Island with the renowned art and antiquity collections of the Staatliche Museen Berlin, including the Pergamonmuseum with its famous Pergamon Altar and the Neues Museum with its equally famous bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. […]

Leave a Reply