Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt
In going through my old 35mm slides a few months ago, I came upon some photos that I made in Berlin, Germany, in December 1982, during my second trip to Europe.
Among those photos were these two that I made at the Egyptian Museum in West Berlin. Berlin was still a divided city back then – the Berlin Wall would still stand between East and West for another eight years – and each side had its own Egyptian Museum. The one in the East was part of a group of antiquities museums there, and they were certainly much larger than those in the West, and contained some truly spectacular things like the great altar from Pergamom in Asia Minor and the fabulous lion’s gate from Bablyon. Being in the communist East, these museums also had the virtue of very few visitors, making a visit there an almost private experience.
Nonetheless, Nefertiti was in the West and was the pride of the collection there – as she continues to be today, now that the city is one and the museums have been unified. She now resides, in a gallery set aside just for her, at the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection in the Neues Museum in the former East. She also continues to be an object of international contention as the Egyptian government tries to get her back and the German government steadfastly refuses to hand her over. (I read recently that the Germans claim that she is “Egypt’s best ambassador in Germany,” or some such thing.)
Who was Nefertiti? “The Beautiful One Has Come” (as her name translates) lived from about 1370 to 1330 BCE and was the queen and Great Royal Wife of the 18th Dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten. He changed his name from Amenhotep IV and instituted the radical idea of monotheism in Egypt by practicing the worship of only one deity – the sun god Aten. Tutankhamun – King Tut himself – would become the king for his short reign not long after Akhenaten and Nefertiti, and was part of the family.
Partially – or primarily – because of this particular portrait bust in Berlin (found by German archaeologists in the studio of a sculptor named Thutmose in Amarna, the modern name for Akhenaten’s capital, Akhetaten), Nefertiti is one of the best known queens of ancient Egypt. She even made an appearance in a recent episode of “Doctor Who.” (Well, an actor portraying her did.)
Still, this post is not simply about art and history. It’s also about photography.
I took a look recently at the website for the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. The Visitor’s Information page there is an odd mix of German and English. Here is an example of it, under the heading of Photos:
“Photographing in the exhibition is allowed without flash or tripod. Im Nofretete-Raum ist das Fotografieren nicht erlaubt!”
That last sentence, written in German and emphasized with an exclamation, translates as “Photography is not allowed in the Nefertiti Room!”
So, why is photography of Nefertiti verboten when it is permitted in the rest of museum? Does the museum want to force people to buy postcards of Nefertiti? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. After all, the museum sold postcards back in 1982 and people were still allowed to photograph her.
I think it’s because of another reason: cell phones.
A few years ago, I read a piece written by the late photographer Bill Jay in Lenswork magazine. He wrote of an experiment that he made at a party. Jay placed a small, toy hammer on a table and waited to see what would happen. Sure enough, after a short time, people began to pick up the hammer and give others little bops on the head with it – not because there was a reason to do so, but simply because they could.
I think he was alluding to some of the things that photographers would do with programs like Photoshop, altering their photos in different ways – not because there was a good reason for it or because it made the photo better, but simply because they could.
The same can be said for much of cell phone photography: people do it not because there’s a good reason for it, but simply because they can. (I would also add talking on cell phones to the list, but that’s another story.)
“The Last Judgement” by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel
We now live in a world where a person has not actually seen or done something unless they photograph it with their phones and then (naturally) post it to social media. I’ve seen people post dozens of unedited photos on Facebook of something that they’ve done or seen when a half dozen of the best of them would have sufficed.
To some extent, I am guilty of this myself. As a fan of Doctor Who, I like to get photos with the actors when I get their autographs at conventions or at the theater, and then post them for people to see – but as a friend once told me, “You haven’t actually met them unless you get a photograph with them.” (Really???)
Then, of course, there are those people who feel the need to show the world (or their friends) what they had for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner, as if the world (or their friends) really cared.
Clearly, the bust of Nefertiti is not something that you pop into the microwave or burn on a grill. It is a world treasure and definitely worthy of photographing, but in 1982, when I made my pictures, photography was different. You needed to have a real camera to do so, and since most museum visitors did not bring cameras, photographing her was not a problem.
I have not been to Berlin for a number of years, but I can only imagine what it’s like now. The city was an isolated place back in 1982 – a lone island of democracy behind the Iron Curtain – so I would think that it gets a lot more visitors today, with a lot of them flocking to the Egyptian Museum to crowd around its star attraction.
Now just imagine all of them trying to photograph Nefertiti with their cell phones, blocking the view of others as they stand there to get their shot. It’s no surprise, then, that the museum would prohibit photographing her, because who wants to have to stare at somebody else’s back when you’ve come there to see the queen of Egypt?
“God creates Man” by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling
This also makes me think of my last two visits to another of the world’s great art treasures: the Sistine Chapel. This great hall in the Vatican, with its paintings by Michelangelo, Botticelli and others, also draws lots of visitors. I was first there in 1990, and noticed the signs saying that photography was prohibited. The guards took it seriously, too. If they saw someone take a photo, they’d go over and tell the person to stop. (So, you might be able to get one shot in, at least.)
On my next visit there in 2009, I saw that the signs were still there. What had changed was the attitude of the guards. This time, they didn’t even try, for with so many people with their digital cameras snapping away at will, any attempt to put a stop to it all would have been futile. (To this I must also admit “mea culpa,” as I figured that with everybody else doing it, I may as well take some with my little digital camera, too.)