Friday, November 24, 2006


Something unrelated to computers that was user unfriendly

Saw the Ancient Egyptian exhibit at the Portland Art Museum today. The pieces were undeniably wonderful, but afterwards, my chief impression was how the exhibit was defeated by its layout. And the problems, like any interface, could have been addressed with a few simple fixes.

First was the problem of how to get from the initial exhibit -- the monumental head of Senusret I that had been recarved to portray Ramesses II. I and my wife examined it, wondered behind it to look at the lid of an Egyptian coffin -- then puzzled over where to go to see the rest of the exhibit.After some fumbling around, we found that we were expected to know that only these two items were on the ground floor & that we had to go upstairs to view the rest of the artifacts.

(Actually, this was my wife's complaint. Trust me she's no dummy, having passed the CPA exam on the first try. More importantly, once she became annoyed with this exhibit, I couldn't help but become annoyed with her.)

Once up there, it was difficult to view anything in the first room due to the crush of the crowd, formed from the visitors who were -- as could be expected -- eager to see the treasures. And then there was a fragment of an obelisk I was looking forward to seeing -- but it had been placed on the far side from the door of a small room where the usual "Egyptian funerary beliefs for beginners" video was playing. To examine the obelisk meant I had to stand in the middle of the room & block the view of several people, & I wasn't interested in watching a video that repeated a lot of things that I already knew.

Probably what stands out most in my mind was a room created in imitation of a similar room in the tomb of Thutmose III. Someone had put a lot of thought & work into the effort, & if one listened to the audio guide for this part of the exhibit, it was quite informative. However, when I first entered the room, I had no idea that the audio guide was so crucial: I walked into the darkened room, avoided walking into a few more absorbed groups of visitors, glanced at the 3 or 4 objects in plexiglass cases, noticed that the floor of the room was covered with worn 2x10 planking, & wondered what the point was at having a reproduction of the Egyptian Book of the Dead papered over the walls. At this point I walked back to the entrance, set my listening device to this room, & found out what I had been missing -- all of which could have been made much easier for people like me had there been a sign above the entrance saying something like, "A reproduction of a chamber from the Tomb of Thutmose III".

Usually I ignore these devices, because they usually offer nothing more than a re-hashing of what I've already read 20 years ago, and fail to answer the questions a nerd like me often has. For example, at one point the voice of Jeremy Irons intoned that if the devoted family forgot to visit the tomb and make an offering to the dead, the spirit could be nourished merely by looking at one of the pictures. My question about this statement is simple: do the ancient Egyptians actually tell us this is what we believe, or is something one of the scholars suggested, & has since been accepted by fact by generations of Egyptologists and popularizers?

However, let me emphasise that I did enjoy seeing these actual ancient objects up close, despite what the above might suggest. Seeing the actual object versuses looking at even a high-quality photograph allows one a true intimacy. Being intimate means more than seeing something in the equivalent of the Sunday Best and perfect manners: it also means seeing what is worn when there hasn't been enough time to do laundry. There was a model boat from the tomb of Amenhotep II, and I spent my time studying the parts that do not intentionally appear in the pictures, like the backs of the objects on the deck (where the catalog numbers and the grain of the wood could be seen) or the bow and stern of the boat and marvelling at the wear on the piece.


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