Place yourself in an ancient world. On September 28th, 2000 my boyfriend and myself attended the Metropolitan Museum of Art located in New York City, to visit an archeological exhibit on Egyptian Art. Located in the first floor off 83rd street and Fifth Avenue, the exhibit consists of thirty-two galleries each illustrating a time period in Egyptian history. It is difficult to elucidate the colossal impact this exhibit delineates. But given the chance in this essay, I will try to depict to the reader how The Metropolitan Museum of Art has successfully designed an overall picture that reflects the aesthetic values, history, religious beliefs, and daily life of the ancient Egyptians over the entire course of their great civilization.
Within the walls of this vault-like exhibit area, you will find precious jewels, stone carvings and giant tombs. While many of the precious pieces of art lie behind glass walls, some of the most impressive stone carvings and slabs lie right in the middle of the floor, with nothing between you but the temptation to touch. I was transported to a world long gone, and I found myself feeling faint. The collection consists of approximately 36,000 objects dating from the Paleolithic to the Roman period (ca. 300,000 BC – 4th century AD) as seen in Gallery 1 in a time line against the wall. According to Mrs. Robins at the information desk, the collection derived from the Museum’s thirty-five years of archaeological work in Egypt beginning in 1906 by Mr. J. Perpont Morgan, the Museum’s president, until his death in 1913. After his death, the museum conducted fourteen seasons of excavations at Lisht (artifacts seen in Gallery 10- Middle Kingdom- Lisht). Mr. Albert M. Lithgoe, a famous American Egyptologist led the early excavation teams, and he was the first curator of the Department of Egyptian Art. As the years passed, more and more discoveries were made like in the tomb of the early Middle Kingdom Chancellor Meketre. In this site, an untouched chamber was discovered consisting of twenty-four painted wooden models of “boats, gardens, offering figures, and scenes of food production” that are more detailed than any found before or since.” Over the years, the Department of Egyptian Art has also been able to obtain private collections through inheritance and purchase, gifts and from individuals willing to provide funding. In addition, the staff of the Department of Egyptian Art continues to excavate in Egypt, to conduct research for publication, and to organize special exhibits.
Locating the beginning of the exhibit was a bit difficult. As I previously mentioned, the exhibit consists of thirty-two galleries making it an extremely large exhibit. Some of the galleries have sub-sections called studies. It wasn’t clear to us what this meant and it seemed like no one in the staff really knew what “study” was. The security guards, placed at different points throughout the museum, were not of much help. They send us to a map on the walls that were also a little confusing. Finally we where able to locate the beginning of the exhibit and thus commence the journey. The first thing you see is an illustration of a temple of the Fifth Dynasty with its description. It took me a while to discover that there were thirty-two sections and that there were in chronological order. I was a bit off. What was this temple doing in Gallery 1 Dynasty 0? As no explanation was given, I continued on towards Gallery 2- Dynasties 1-10. Here there where examples of linen, frames for couches, stone plates, statues. All located behind glass walls and with their appropriate markers explaining a little about the origin and assumption or facts about what the piece meant. Gallery 3 to 5 depicted the eleventh Dynasty. Included here was also a sub-section (4A) study. It is in this Gallery that we see the finest preserved artifacts discovered in the tomb of Chancellor Meketre. I did not know this till much later when I visited Gallery 4A where brief explanations were given for the various artifacts throughout the gallery 4. My initial reaction was: shouldn’t this be before the models presented in Gallery 4? Another interesting fact is that this small room is almost invisible and not easily perceived. It is almost hidden. If it weren’t for my boyfriend who noticed it accidentally, I would have totally dismissed it and probably never would have discovered the importance of this section.
Upon entering Gallery 6- Amenemhat I, I noticed a brief description depicting the late 11th Dynasty to Amenemhat I located on the wall. From here thereon, this would proof to be very helpful in putting together the pieces that didn’t fit with the brief labels put before the item. It is also worth mentioning that at this point, I noticed that things were placed chronologically, well at least as best as it could possibly be arranged and that the different galleries were marked accordingly. (Later on we would encounter confusion again. Up to this point, all was fine.) There were also descriptions of the different excavations that took place. In Gallery 6 we see description of excavations of the Pyramid of Amenemhat I. The end of this section led to Gallery 11, so we had to turn back to look for Gallery 7 if we wanted to keep looking chronologically. This was really time consuming and caused a bit of distraction.
Gallery 7 – Senwosret I. In this section, there was a good example of something that was said in class and it helped me understand a little more what the professor was trying to illustrate when talking about assumptions made in archaeology. The item was a Ritual Figure wearing the Red Crown. In the label before the item, it stated, “… a certain distinguished characteristic style of this wooden sculpture accords well with the chronology suggested by the archaeological context.” Thus implying that an assumption was correct just because of a distinguishable characteristic.
By Gallery 8, it is obvious to the viewer that the different artistic styles have changed becoming more detailed and precise. We see this contrast in the item titled The Steward Schetepibreanth Statue. His face is youthful and idealized. His muscles are emphasized and the wig and kilt are elaborately detailed. This is in sharp contrast to the careworn expression found in royal portraits of the second half of the twelfth dynasty.
In Gallery nine, mirrors have been placed inside the sarcophagus placed here so we can view the elaborate art inside the coffins.
There were two sections of the exhibit the caused the greatest impact in me. The first was in Gallery 12th – Hatshepsut – Dynasty 18. Eight enormous sculptures adorn this section. All were about 9-12 feet in length (this is an assumption because no where was this information available) and were recovered at Deir el Bahri. To me, this was one of the most beautiful sections of the exhibition. It showed a little of the grandeur and splendor of this civilization giving it new depths and understanding to the imagination.
By this time, a good break was badly needed. We were bombarded with so much information that we felt drained and without much conviction to move on. At this point, we had spent about 2.5 hours viewing the first half of the exhibition.
The second half of the expedition proved to be the beginning of a maze. We couldn’t find Galleries 14-16. At the end of Gallery 13, which consisted of a very long hallway, Gallery 25 appears which is the Temple of Dendur; the second most impressive section of the exhibition. The beautiful ruins help to establish a connection with all the items previously viewed. It is not hard to imagine living during the time of the Roman emperor Augustus by physically viewing the magnificence of the Egyptian civilization. Two colossi’s of Amenhotep III locate the entrance to the temple and a small stream runs behind the statues. The ruins can be entered and we get a sense of how it feels to be inside; an awareness of ancient voices, ancient language, and ancient writings on the walls. It is simply beautiful.
After this section, it is hard to keep concentrated on the rest of the exhibition. What I remember distinctly after this is in Galleries 27 & 28 – Macedonian – Ptolemaic Period and this is the papyrus illustrating the Egyptian Book of the Dead in its entirety. This was amazing to look at. How a rarity like this could be so well preserved.
Gallery 29 exhibited Egyptian wall paintings from the New Kingdom and Galleries 31& 32 represented the Roman period in Egypt; a small section. The end of this section leads us back to the beginning of the exhibition and home towards a critique.
Overall, the museum presented its intentions clearly and concisely. Walking through the exhibition, I felt not only transported back in time , but full of knowledge of a civilization that we may never had learned of if it weren’t for the many hours of labor and dedication to the preservation of these artifacts. Of course, there was so much data that it will take several weeks, not one day, to fully grasp the meaning and significance of these findings. It is completely absorbing and engaging, so much in fact that you feel wearied and consumed at its end. But, I believe that this is part of the museums’ layout to fully perceive and interpret its importance. But, as I have previously illustrated. Not all was sugar and spice.
Besides the other disturbances previously listed, one of the things I didn’t find so appealing was the lack of consistency in the sections. They did not flow logically from one place to another. This added to the accumulating exhaustion. Another aspect that bothered me was the language used in the markers and labels used in depicting the items. To a non-native English speaker, it would be extremely difficult to understand what was being said. I think that clearly this illustrates that the exhibition is geared to an audience that must have, at least, college level historical education. It would be fair to say that this could use some improvement. Everyone needs a chance, no? All in all, I still believe the exhibition presented very well the aesthetic values, history, religious beliefs, and daily life of the ancient Egyptians, and perhaps one-day perfection may arise.