Outside the main court of the Young Museum in San Francisco, a large room is filled with medieval egg-shaped chairs—actually Positron Voyager virtual reality (VR) pods. Here, after an assistant joins you with heavy VR headsets and headsets, you sit down and wait for the ride to begin. “Ramses & Nefertari: Journey to Osiris” is a 10.5-minute VR experience that takes you through the desert and ancient Egyptian symbols. A very popular exhibit for the museum’s most popular exhibit Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs (until February 12), there are 180 ancient Egyptian objects.
Your “guide” for this tour will be Nefertari, the beloved queen of Ramses II, the king who reigned between 1279 and 1213 BC, known as the Pharaoh of the Pharaohs for his military conquests and the construction of cities and important points. In this virtual world, Nefertari can miraculously fly, travel through time and speak English (and fluently). He took us to Abu Simbel, the temple that once housed four large statues of Ramses II. “Ramses built this temple as a symbol of himself and his great deeds,” he said. “I admit, he’s a bit of a jerk sometimes.” Later we were sent to the beautiful tomb he had built for him, with rooms upon rooms decorated with carved symbols. The chair tilts and vibrates so you can move around the area with it, and it emits some scents at times.
The exhibit and VR experience have been put together by Florida-based World Heritage Exhibitionsits parent company Neon is based in Singapore. “We worked with the Egyptian government and their council of antiquities and arranged for the artifacts to be taken on tour,” said Peter Hall, managing director of World Heritage. “In our agreement, we will share the proceeds from the exhibition to fund research and excavations and the preservation of archaeological sites in Egypt.” The show is expensive ($35 for adults), and the tour costs $20. Hall says he can’t say how many guests have taken the ride; the exhibition draws 300,000 visitors by the time the museum closes, making it one of de Young’s most popular exhibitions of the past decade.
At the museum, the exhibition was curated by Renée Dreyfus, its curator of ancient art. He has directed the two previous King Tutankhamun exhibits that have come to San Francisco, and when he learned of the Ramses II exhibit going on tour, he said, “I thought it was a great idea, because there hadn’t been an American show of Ramses in over 30 years—that show hadn’t been in San Francisco. I knew the time was right for Ramses to be re-evaluated.
Dreyfus was able to see the exhibit at its first American stop, Houston’s Museum of Natural Sciences., and he could add resources such as “more learning activities and wall panels to make the presentation better”, he said. For example, “what animal mummies are in the exhibit? Because we wanted to talk about the kingdom and the gods and the human relationship with the gods.”
The show closes in San Francisco and goes to La Villette in Paris (7 April-6 September), where an immersive VR experience is also on offer. “We believe these VR chairs are the most helpful addition to any show,” Hall said. “We really look at this as the future of how we present cultural heritage, as you can see in these pieces. [nearby] then you can come here and bring those parts to life and put them in a context that you can’t with just a smile.”
- Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohsthrough February 12, de Young Museum, San Francisco.