To Live Forever: Egyptian Treasures
Didn’t we all study Ancient Egypt in elementary school? It seemed like the more we learned, the stranger everything was: hieroglyphics, lobotomized corpses, kings worshiped as gods—not that unusual, I guess, but the gods had the heads of animals! Add to that some Biblical plagues and a couple of deadly, millennia-old curses, and it’s no wonder both kids and adults seem to find this culture irresistible.
No surprise, then, when young and old made a strong showing for the opening day of To Live Forever: Egyptian Treasures from the Brooklyn Museum now at the Nevada Museum of Art. The show, organized by the Brooklyn Museum’s Curator of Egyptian Art Edward Bleiberg, features an array of artifacts from Ancient Egyptian tombs, everything from sarcophagi to food platters to little mummified dogs. (There’s a human mummy, too.) It’s the first time a collection like this has made its way to Northern Nevada, and the museum has gone to some lengths to make sure it’s a big deal.
In light of recent events in Egypt—an uprising you may have heard about—a mural was commissioned to look toward the country’s future, occupying an entire wall of the exhibition. It turns out to be less a nod to the rebels than a look into the sci-fi mind that conceived it, writer Bruce Sterling.
On Friday, June 17, hailing from Egypt itself will be Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass, in town to talk about his work in Egyptology, as well as the recent revolution. Then there will be a party, and then another party, this one with acrobats. And that’s just the weekend of June 17-19.
It’s worth remembering that the civilization we refer to as Ancient Egypt occupied a span of time greater than the entire history of Christianity, and with presumably just as strong a belief system. Some of the objects on display are from 5,000 years ago, which is fairly impressive in itself, and all had some part to play in providing for or protecting their owners in the afterlife. Among the standouts is “Mummy Mask of a Man,” from the first century AD. Made of creamily smooth stucco, then gilded, the Roman-influenced likeness is decorated with a subtle arrangement of red, green and black pigments and was intended to assist its mummy in becoming a god. There’s also “Relief of a Fowler,” a white, limestone fragment with the head and torso of a man out hunting. This image, from the 15th century BC, was meant to ensure its owner would have enough food by literally hunting for him.
So? Anyone can gather up a pile of magical objects. What sets To Live Forever apart is its focus on practicality. In the exhibition and accompanying catalog, much is made of the differences between varying classes of Egyptians and what they could and could not afford to take with them to their tombs. Should that amulet be made of gold—preferably—or faience, which Bleiberg calls “the plastic of Ancient Egypt”? Do you require a new sarcophagus, or will this nice, used, dug-up one do? We’ll just paint over the name. It’s a fascinating treatment that gets at the reality of ancient lives. No longer are these Egyptians the mysteriously shrouded mystics we’re so used to hearing about. It turns out they were actually just human. Regular, penny-pinching, image-obsessed, human. Just like the rest of us.