Echoes of Egypt reverberate at Peabody Museum

Detail from Lawrence Alma-Tadema's "Joseph, Overseer of Pharaoh's Granaries," 1874; oil on panel

"Echoes of Egypt: Conjuring the Land of the Pharaohs" doesn't approach ancient Egypt as ancient history.

Instead, the large-scale exhibition, which just opened at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, takes a holistic view of the ancient civilization and the impact of its art, architecture, language and literature, on cultures around the world and through the centuries.

Ancient and modern art and artifacts tell the story of early Egyptian civilizations alongside antique books, "magical gems," dioramas, interactive displays and a section illustrating the meaning and evolution of hieroglyphs - and, of course, a real "live" mummy.

A prime example of ancient Egypt's enduring presence in modern society is the entranceway to the exhibition. Visitors walk through a scaled-down reproduction of the gateway to New Haven's Grove Street Cemetery that mirrors monuments of the ancient Nile Valley. Henry Austin designed the gateway in 1839 and constructed locally in 1848.

There have been countless Egyptian revivals worldwide but, as Colleen Manassa, the exhibition curator and associate professor of Egyptology at Yale points out, this is "one of the most diverse collections of ancient Egyptian-influenced objects ever assembled."

She adds, "Exhibits that are so-called Egyptomania or Egyptian Revivals begin with Napoleon's invasion, so they only cover the last 200 years-we cover the last 2,000 years."

Manassa says the exhibit attempts to answer the "why" behind Egyptian revivals rather than just the "how," and that this is the first time this concept of Egyptosophy (the inclusion of ancient Egypt's magical and religious symbolism by later cultures) has been included in an overall exhibit about the ancient culture.

"We show the reputation of Egypt as a land of wisdom and magic and how it is that reputation which may have contributed to Egypt remaining so popular throughout the world in all of these different cultures for the past 2,000 years," Manassa notes.

A whole section of the exhibit, titled "Mummy-Mania," focuses on the cultural fascination with mummies through various media. The centerpiece is a diorama - created by artists at the Peabody Museum - of a family watching a mummy "unwrapping" event in Philadelphia during the 19th-century.

Manassa believes mummies are so intriguing because they have achieved a type of immortality unlike a body that is not visible, that is preserved under the ground. In modern burials or even cremations, the human form is not preserved in the same way, she points out.

"I think we're fascinated to be able to look into the face of an ancient individual who lived possibly 3,000 or even 4,000 years ago," she says.

"She's phenomenally well-preserved," Manassa adds, referring to the mummy in an ancient Egyptian case on loan from the Barnum Museum.

Other aspects of Egyptian revival in the exhibit include Egyptian-style objects from ancient Sudan, and reproduction of a 13th-century Italian sphinx using cutting-edge 3-D printing technology.

Another unique object on view is an unusual copy of a medieval Arabic attempt to translate hieroglyphs never before seen in the U.S., on loan from Bibliotheque nationale de France.

Manassa points to "Love's Labour Lost" by Edwin Longsden Long (1829-1891), one of the most successful painters of the Victorian period, as "one of the best examples of Egyptianized painting." On the large canvas on loan from the Dahesh Museum, a group of women are gathered and the artist has captured ancient Egyptian daily life, down to the last artifact and detail in the foreground and background.

The main point Manassa says she's trying to make in this exhibit is the universality of the appeal of ancient Egyptian civilization and that it predated any prejudices or creeds that exist in the modern world.

"I tried as much as possible to make that something that's very clear through the juxtaposition of all these different objects and also highlighting just how rich the holdings are at Yale University with some really key loans from other generous learning institutions," she says.

"I wanted to create an exhibit that really showcases this universal appeal of ancient Egypt - and that it's not just a Western phenomenon," she adds, "but it's something that ties people across time and across many different places.

"When we learn about history, history continues to live for us."

Gilded mummy mask from the Ptolemaic Period
Gilded mummy mask from the Ptolemaic Period
A portion of a stone map of the cosmos circa 664-332 BCE.
A portion of a stone map of the cosmos circa 664-332 BCE.

IF YOU GO

What: “Echoes of Egypt,” exhibition
of ancient Egyptian culture

Where: The Yale Peabody Museum,
170 Whitney Ave., New Haven

When: Through Jan. 4, 2014. Museum
hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday
to Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $9 adults; $8 seniors
65 years and over; $5 kids ages 3
to 18 and college students with ID.
Members free.

Info: peabody.yale.edu

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