The Mummy Returns

The Mummy of Demetris, From Brooklyn Museum

The traveling exhibition, To Live Forever, organized by Brooklyn Museum from its own extensive Egyptian collection, is coming back home. The opening day is scheduled on Feb 12, 2009.

At all all four previous venues which include Indianapolis, Sarasota, Columbus and Forfolk, the exhibition has been a great success. In Columbus alone, 18,586 visitors went to the see the mummies between June 1 and June 7, 2009, which set a record for museum’s attendance in history.

The stop at the Brooklyn Museum was not in the original plan. The traveling show has mainly targeted at metropolitan areas where Egyptian collections are sparse. However, while New Yorkers are accustomed to seeing a giant granite Hatshepsut or colorful cartonnages, this exhibition is likely to attract a large number of enthusiastic local and out-of-town visitors because of its unique curatorial perspective.

In fact, even the most savvy local museum goer may find the presentation and materials of the exhibition refreshing and new. More than 100 objects were selected from the museum’s storage room, which would never had the chance to be viewed by the public. Some of these objects didn’t make to the permanent display simply because of space concerns. But a great portion of these objects are stored because they are less opulent or refined than those made for the kings and high officials.

Curators have been long battled with objects of lesser quality from ancient civilizations, which quite often lay piled in the storage room. While a set of Brillo boxes stacked by Andy Warhol is received as art, or a rusty zinc weathervane is proudly presented as an emblem of American folk, a plain wood coffin would make visitors question scholars and curators inside ivory towers about their aesthetic judgement between high art and ethnography.

What we have seen of Egyptian art in places like British Museum, Met or Brooklyn Museum are objects made only for perhaps 1% of the ancient population; the rest, even most of the middle class, like craftsman living in Deir el-Medina would not be able to afford gilded masks, or life-sized statues in hardstone. But lack of means does not lead to the lack of desire, especially for something fundamental such as beliefs in afterlife which was deeply rooted in every Egyptian’s heart. Thus the exhibition takes an economic point of view to examine how people of a different societal stratum prepared materials for their afterlife. By using the question of “what if you are not Tutankhamun,” the show brings those antiquity from the storage rooms to life.

The comparison between equipment which served the same purpose but made for a different class is vivid and striking throughout the exhibition. Ironically, the bodies of the poorest at the bottom of this strictly hierarchical society achieve the same degree of preservation perfection (through natural drying in the desert) as those royalty whose bodies were treated with the most complicated mummification process, but with an advantage of no broken nasal-bone, which would be inevitable for fancy treatments including eliminating the brain “waste”.

The mummy “Demetris” accompanied in the exhibition has the most sound “health” among the mummy collection of the museum. Shrouded in linen cloth, whose red pigment was imported from Spain and covered with an encaustic Fayum portrait, Demetris was evidently a member of those one percent who could afford some best materials and craftsmen. In contrast, another mummy from similar Roman period has a painted wood-cover over the whole body. His large expressive eyes have such particularity that look more amicable and folk than those from American itinerant painters. Crude it may be, it testifies that funeral equipment is a necessary need as much as food or clothing. More over, Egyptians were as much religious as pragmatic and sensitive to the market values of such commodity. If a golden mask was out of possible, a terra-cotta one with yellow paint could serve the need.

Some surprising scholarly findings also came out of this exhibition when scholars and conservators worked together on objects which have not been conserved, or studied before. Demetris was in fact the first mummy in the Brooklyn Museum that was CAT scanned which generated a flood of new information plus media reports. In particular, Demetris, who was previously known to have died of a gallbladder infection at the age of 89, was actually only 59 when he died and the CAT scan showed that although his brain was cleaned out, his infected gallbladder was left with the body. One cartonnage, after cleaned, displays astonishing beauty and designs that would not have been noticed under layers of century’s dirt, yet it also reveals that such a coffin was reused for a different body: a practice, perhaps scandalous in some way, but unavoidable when inflation had driven up the price of a coffin beyond a normal person’s reach.

Our view of Egyptian forever changed the day when Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. Perhaps our Egyptomania has been secretly driven by the urge to the return to the golden age when man’s achievement seemed solely determined by his ambition. Yet ancient Egyptian’s materialistic view of need and want and their pursuit of comfort (albeit afterlife) based on the available resources and limited means, could hardly find a better resonance when one of the deepest recessions has affected millions of Americans who have lost jobs, houses or were forced to scale down. This exhibition, with just less than 130 objects, some less extravagant, tells us ancient Egyptians, like us, were human. We all have our limits, technologically and financially, but we all strive for what we believe in.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 – 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that “his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.


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