Off the central courtyard of the de Young Museum in San Francisco, a large room is filled with what look like mid-century egg chairs – they’re actually Positron Voyager virtual reality (VR) modules. Here, after an attendant outfits you with heavy VR glasses and headphones, 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 the monuments of ancient Egypt. It was a popular side show to the museum’s hit exhibition Ramses the Great and the gold of the pharaohs (until February 12), which has some 180 ancient Egyptian treasures.
Your “guide” on this journey is a lively Nefertari, beloved queen of Ramesses II, the king who reigned between 1279 and 1213 BCE and is known as the pharaoh of pharaohs for his military conquests and the building of cities and great monuments. In this virtual afterlife, Nefertari can miraculously fly, transcend time, and speak English (with a stuffy accent). She takes us to Abu Simbel, the temple in front of four colossal statues of Ramses II. “Ramses built this temple as a monument to himself and his great accomplishments,” she says. “I admit he could be a little conceited at times.” Then we speed off to the magnificent tomb he built for her, with chambers upon chambers decorated with colorful hieroglyphics. The chair tilts and shakes just enough to make you feel like you’re moving through space with it, and some smells are occasionally released.
The exhibit and VR experience was put together by the Florida-based company World Heritage Exhibitionswhose parent company is based in Singapore Neon. “We partnered with the Egyptian government and its council of antiquities and made arrangements to take the artifacts on tour,” says Peter Hall, operations manager for World Heritage. “In our agreement, we share the proceeds of the exhibition to fund ongoing research, excavations and conservation efforts at archaeological sites in Egypt.” The exhibit itself is quite expensive ($35 for adults) and the ride is $20. Hall says he can’t reveal how many visitors made the trip; the museum projects a total of about 300,000 visitors to the exhibit by the time it closes, making it one of de Young’s most popular exhibits of the past decade.
At the museum, the exhibition was curated by Renée Dreyfus, its longtime curator of ancient art. She’s managed two previous King Tutankhamun exhibits in San Francisco, and when she heard the Ramses II exhibit was on tour, she said, “I thought it was a brilliant idea, because it’s not there hasn’t been an exhibition in America on Ramses. in over 30 years – and this show has never come to San Francisco. I realized that the time had come for there to be a reassessment of Ramses.”
Dreyfus was able to see the exhibition during his first American stop, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and was able to add material such as “more didactics and wall panels to make the exhibit more cohesive,” she says. For example, “Why are there animal mummies in the exhibit?” Because we wanted to talk about royalty and the gods and the people’s relationship with the gods.
After the exhibition closes in San Francisco, she will travel to La Villette in Paris (April 7-September 6), where the immersive VR experience will also be offered. “We think these VR chairs are the perfect addition to an exhibit,” says Hall. “We really see this as the future of how we’re going to display cultural artifacts, where you can see these pieces [nearby] and then you can come here and bring those pieces to life and put them into context in a way that you never could just with video.
- Ramses the Great and the gold of the pharaohsuntil February 12, from Young Museum, San Francisco.