Shirley MacLaine arrived to meet the Grantham family outside our front door in the third series of ‘Downton Abbey’. She is an irrepressible actress and part of Hollywood royalty. Apart from the scenes in which she was sparring with Maggie Smith and her fictional family, however, she was also very interested in Highclere’s Egyptian Exhibition.
In fact, we had created an Egyptian Exhibition in the cellars underneath the main state rooms some years before Downton came to Highclere. It is a true and fabulous story, with treasure, tragedy and mysterious curses. The discovery of the tomb by Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter in 1922 was also considered the first global media event.
Our exhibition at Highclere begins with real antiquities: the remains of the collection of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. The majority (some 1,400) items were sold to Metropolitan Museum of New York in 1926 to pay death duties. I have happily wandered through rooms in the Met, quietly observing various exquisite antiquities – they are exceptional in beauty and quality, a tribute to the unerring eye of Lord Carnarvon, one of the finest collectors in the world in his time. From statues of tiny animals, to a jasper fragment of Nefertiti’s face, practical and decorative objects offer a window into a civilization which spanned perhaps thousands of years. The objects on display however are a fraction of the beauty of the works of art and architecture in Egypt, both in situ and in their museums.
The Highclere exhibition focuses on the story, the endeavours of two men who did not give up. The cellars develop the life and times of Carnarvon and Carter, before exploring the circumstances around the actual discovery of the tomb. Further cellars continue with the story of Tutankhamun and explore the replicas of the sarcophagus and mummy with treasures from that most extraordinary tomb.
I spent ages creating graphic boards living in the half gloom and then writing up the guide book as well, thinking I could use my time well by doing two things at once. I entered the project as ever with enthusiasm and found it was quite a big job! I became utterly absorbed by it, researching and writing and making it relevant to today’s visitors trying to find the little hooks to connect the worlds through time and land.
I hope the children and adults enjoy it as much as Shirley MacLaine told me she did – she was most interested to see we had an Anubis replica as she felt it was somehow related to her dog, or perhaps a reincarnation was at work. She also was fascinated by the curses and energy here at the Castle especially given the 5th Earl sadly died in Cairo in the hour of his triumph following the discovery of the tomb. Of course the 5th Earl’s dog Susie died at Highclere at exactly the same time Lord Carnarvon died in Egypt. They are buried together above the Castle in the midst of an Iron Age fort on Beacon Hill.
For all the sensational stories, I have in fact become passionate about Ancient Egypt. I am sometimes not sure we have achieved anything as great as its art and architecture. I marvel at the 5,000 years old civilisation. At the moment, I am revising all my notes and research because I have created two days this Autumn to highlight Ancient Egypt as well as guided tours where the stories of Shirley MacLaine, her Downton Abbey co-stars and the myths of Ancient Egypt come together – At Home at Highclere!