Off the central courtyard of the 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) pods. Here, after an attendant fits you with heavy VR goggles 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 sweeps you through the desert and monuments of ancient Egypt. It was a popular sideshow to the museum’s best-selling exhibition Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs (until February 12), which boasts some 180 ancient Egyptian treasures.
Your “guide” on this journey is vivacious Nefertari, beloved queen of Ramses II, the king who ruled between 1279 and 1213 BC and is known as the Pharaoh of Pharaohs for his military conquests and building of cities and magnificent monuments. In this virtual afterlife, Nefertari can miraculously fly, transcend time and speak English (with a stylized accent). She takes us to Abu Simbel, the temple fronted by four colossal statues of Ramses II. “Ramses built this temple as a monument to himself and his magnificent achievements,” she says. “I admit he could be a bit vain at times.” Then we zip to the magnificent tomb he built for her, with rooms upon rooms decorated with colorful hieroglyphics. The chair tilts and shakes just enough to give you a sense of moving through the space with her, and certain scents are occasionally released.
Both the exhibition and the VR experience were put together by the World Heritage Exhibitions based in Floridawhose parent company is Singapore-based Neon. “We worked with the Egyptian government and their antiquities council and made an arrangement to take the artefacts on tour,” says Peter Hall, operations manager for World Heritage. “In our agreement, we share proceeds from the exhibition to fund current research and excavation and conservation efforts at archaeological sites in Egypt.” The exhibition itself is quite expensive ($35 for adults), and the ride costs a separate $20 fee. Hall says he cannot reveal how many visitors took the ride; the museum projects a total of about 300,000 visitors to the exhibition by the time it closes, making it one of the de Young’s most popular exhibitions of the past decade.
At the museum, the exhibition was led by Renée Dreyfus, its longtime curator of ancient art. She has curated two previous exhibits about King Tutankhamun that came to San Francisco, and when she learned about the Ramses II exhibit traveling, she says, “I thought that was a brilliant idea, because there was no exhibit in America about Ramses. in more than 30 years—and that show never came to San Francisco. I realized the time was right for there to be a reassessment of Ramses.”
Dreyfus was able to see the exhibit at its 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 exhibition more coherent,” she says. For example, “why are the animal mummies in the exhibition? Because we wanted to talk about kingship and the gods and the relationship of the people with the gods.”
After closing the exhibition in San Francisco it will travel to La Villette in Paris (April 7-September 6), where the immersive VR experience will also be offered. “We believe these VR chairs are the perfect complement to an exhibition,” says Hall. “We really look at this as the future of how we’re going to exhibit 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 with video alone.”
- Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohsuntil 12 February, from Young Museum, San Francisco.