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Museums: Egyptian Roadshows Volume 55 Number 5, September/October 2002
by Mark Rose

An ebony statuette of Meryrahashtef, a 6th Dynasty (ca. 2345-2181 B.C.) official, left, is one of several exquisitely carved wooden figures in the exhibition Eternal Egypt. (The British Museum)
On display in
The Quest for Immortality is a wood and gold chair, right, with protective deities from the tomb of Yuya and Tuya, parents of Queen Tiye, wife of Amenhotep III (ca. 1390-1352 B.C.) (The Egyptian Museum Cairo)

Like a rare planetary conjunction, shows from two of the world's finest Egyptian collections are now touring North America. The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt will be at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through October 14, then hits the road until December 2007. It joins Eternal Egypt: Masterworks Of Ancient Art From The British Museum, currently at San Francisco's Palace of the Legion of Honor, through November 3, and traveling into early 2004.

The Quest for Immortality, which I saw at its Washington opening, is the third blockbuster exhibition Egypt has sent to North America. Like its predecessors--Treasures of Tutankhamun and Rameses the Great--it is designed to bring ancient Egyptian culture to a wide audience and possibly entice some of that audience to travel to Egypt, which depends on tourist dollars. Eternal Egypt also has a practical motive: renovation at the British Museum necessitated moving out some of the collection.

The Quest for Immortality has five thematic sections that explore the Egyptian belief in eternal life. A sixth section focuses on the tomb of Thutmose III (1479-1425 B.C.). Most of the objects are from the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, but the largest is a newly created replica of Thutmose's 50-by-29-foot burial chamber. Its walls, like those of the original in the Valley of the Kings, are covered with the ancient text known as Amduat ("What is in the Netherworld"). Intended for royalty, this funerary guidebook describes a deceased ruler's dusk-to-dawn journey through the Netherworld with Re, the sun god, a journey from death to rebirth.

In Eternal Egypt, most of the sculptures, papyri, jewelry, funerary art, and objects from daily life are arranged chronologically, with some small thematic groupings such as scribal arts. Many of the sculptures are colossal, such as a pudgy-faced head of Amenhotep III (ca. 1390-1352 B.C.), carved out of white-and-brown banded quartzite, and a red granite lion commissioned by the same pharaoh. But the exhibition doesn't rely solely on the Ozymandias approach for its punch. Its highlights include wooden figures such as an ebony statuette of a 6th Dynasty (ca. 2345-2181 B.C.) palace official named Meryrahashtef, which the sculptor Henry Moore admired, and two creepy, animal-headed guardian demons from the tomb of Horemheb (ca. 1323-1295 B.C.) in the Valley of the Kings.

These exhibitions are quite different in concept, making a direct comparison an apples and oranges proposition. The big objects of Eternal Egypt, which I saw at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, have an immediate appeal, while the insight into Egyptian beliefs that The Quest for Immortality offers is more subtle, possibly more lasting, but both are worth seeking out.

For more on the shows and venues, see our exclusive online reviews:

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America