IN 1988 as Glasgow was preparing for its epoch-making Garden Festival, Edinburgh was being treated to a dazzling display of pharaohs’ gold.
When it was launched, the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition at the City Art Centre was by far the biggest and most ambitious to have ever taken place in Scotland’s capital, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors during its short run between 8 February and 30 April 1988.
Backed by Edinburgh District Council, the exhibition centred around the ancient Egyptian treasures of Tanis, a horde of royal artefacts dating from 1069 BC - 715 BC which had been discovered accidentally in 1939 by French archaeologist Pierre Montet. His finds, including the invaluable gold funerary mask of King Psusennes I - star of the show at the 1988 exhibition, are regarded among the most significant of the 20th century.
Further items on display at Gold of the Pharaohs included a vast array of millennia-old sarcophagi, jewel-encrusted amulets and death masks, and other extravagantly-detailed priceless relics loaned out by the Cairo Museum, the Louvre and the British Museum. Insurance cover, met by the UK government, topped £25m, while the City Art Centre underwent an extensive security overhaul in a bid to deter any would-be local ‘tomb raiders’.
If you attended school in the Lothians in the late 1980s, there was a fair-to-good chance you went to see Gold of the Pharaohs. Queues stretched the length of Market Street most days, with extra staff employed exclusively to deal with the influx and keep the crowds under control.
The capital went Ancient Egypt-crazy for the duration of the exhibition, with related events taking place at various local libraries and souvenirs ranging from replica jewellery and papyrus bookmarks available for purchase at nearby Waverley Market. Lothian Regional Transport even painted one of their buses gold to promote the seminal exhibition which would go on to leave an indelible impression on a whole generation of Edinburgh folk.
Gold of the Pharaohs was an unbridled success, attracting almost double the 250,000 visitors which had flocked to the Chinese Emperor’s Warriors (Terracotta Army) exhibition held at the City Art Centre in 1985.
Christine Vincenti, who worked with the Recreation Marketing Unit at that time, was involved in the promotion and marketing of the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition. She recalls “It was a really exciting time when Gold of the Pharaohs fever hit Edinburgh. The phones in our office never stopped ringing with people wanting to book advance tickets to avoid the long queues which snaked all the way along Market Street. Schools and community groups from all over the UK came to Edinburgh to visit the exhibition. There was a huge interest from the media too and the exhibition received worldwide press coverage. The blockbuster exhibitions were brought to Edinburgh by Herbert Coutts, City Curator, who was ably assisted by a great team of staff including the late Dr Bob McLean and Ian O’Riordan, former Keeper of the City Art Centre. Without their drive and enthusiasm, the blockbuster exhibitions which firmly put the City Art Centre on the map, would never have happened”.
Edinburgh’s Gold of the Pharaohs ended its 2 month run as the most popular exhibition to have ever been held in the United Kingdom outside of London at that time.
Other popular exhibitions at the City Art Centre which attracted large crowds in the Eighties and Nineties include Thunderbirds Are Go (1986); Dinosaurs Alive! (1990); and Music100 (1996).