A visit to the Met

David Tresilian , Tuesday 9 Jan 2024

With the excitement building before the opening of the new Grand Egyptian Museum, David Tresilian visits some of the world’s other major Egyptological collections — this week the Metropolitan and Brooklyn museums in New York



As the excitement builds before the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) on the Pyramids Plateau outside Cairo, Egyptologists and ancient Egypt fans worldwide are eagerly looking forward to the opportunities the new museum will provide to regular visitors and those with special interests alike.

The GEM is the largest museum in the world dedicated to a single civilisation and the largest dedicated to the display and conservation of the vestiges of ancient Egypt. Some areas of the GEM including the grand entrance hall and commercial areas are already open to visitors, and work continues apace to finish work on the galleries for the institution’s formal opening.

While the GEM is set to overshadow the world’s other museum collections of Egyptology, it will doubtless want to draw upon their expertise and perhaps also on the ways in which these collections have been presented to the public. With this in mind, Al-AhramWeekly has been visiting some of the world’s other major collections of ancient Egyptian artefacts in the run-up to the inauguration of the GEM.

This week’s visit is to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, visited by the Weekly during a recent stop-over in the city that also took in the nearby Brooklyn Museum. Founded in 1870 and with its famous beaux arts façade dominating the so-called Museum Mile on New York’s Fifth Avenue for well over a century, the Metropolitan Museum, the Met for short, is one of the largest and best-known museums in the US containing encyclopaedic collections covering most of the world’s civilisations.

Among them is the ancient Egyptian civilisation that emerged with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt by the Old Kingdom Pharaoh Menes in around 3100 BCE and lasted, with occasional interruptions and foreign invasions, until as late as the first centuries CE. The last known inscription in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the written characters designed to represent the ancient Egyptian language in special, notably religious, contexts, dates to around 394 CE.

Most of the Met’s collections of ancient Egyptian artefacts were put together in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, notably after the foundation of a Department of Egyptian Art at the museum in 1906. Comparable European museums had a headstart when putting together their collections, since they were able to take over not only former royal palaces to house them, but also to confiscate former royal and aristocratic collections, as was the case, for example, with the famous Louvre Museum in Paris.

In the US, by contrast, everything had to be done from scratch. Even so, the Met has an impressive collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities, many of them acquired between 1906 and 1935 within the framework of sponsored excavations in Egypt. The collection is displayed in rooms 100 to 135 on the ground floor of the museum — visitors turn right immediately on entry from the impressive Great Hall — and it begins with the Old Kingdom.

Though the arrangement of the collection does not differ much from standard presentations — divided into the accepted chronology of Pre-Dynastic and Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom, and Late Period, interspersed with various Intermediate Periods and finishing with Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt — it introduces some intriguing local emphases.

Perhaps in response to a new awareness among the public of the importance of the provenance of museum objects and a new sensitivity in many of the world’s museums of how the objects on display came to be where they are today, the Met gives detailed accounts of the provenance of objects, where available, when identifying and labelling the pieces on display.

All museums do this in their catalogue descriptions, but this information has not always been seen as important for the visiting public. They are interested to know what an object is and how one might understand its purpose from display case labels, but they are not always as interested in where it was found and under what circumstances it entered the collections.

According to the Met’s ancient Egyptian galleries, 65 per cent of its collection was acquired through excavation, the majority through the partage or sharing system in place in the early decades of the last century. Under this system, the mostly foreign archaeological teams that funded the excavations at the time could claim a share of any finds.

In the Old Kingdom section of the Met’s galleries, visitors can find the monumental Mastaba Tomb of Perneb, a purchase paid for by the Edward Harkness Fund in 1913, for example, together with some extraordinarily well-preserved models of activities from daily life from the 11th-Dynasty Tomb of Meketre— including miniature versions of a bakery and granary, a stable, a slaughterhouse, and a brewery — all found at Thebes in 1920 and shared with the Egyptian government under the find-sharing system.

There are massive falcon-headed name panels of the Middle Kingdom Pharaoh Senwosret I, excavated at Lisht by a Met expedition and acquired in 1934, and, on a much smaller scale, a famous blue ceramic model of a hippopotamus, affectionately called “William,” found at Meir south of Assiut during excavations in 1910 and gifted by Edward Harkness in 1917.

Wandering through the galleries, well-lit with the objects uncrowded and informatively displayed, visitors eventually come to one of the highlights of the collection — the reconstructed Temple of Dendur from Upper Egypt that now occupies a gallery of its own looking out across Manhattan’s Central Park. The builders of this Temple, labouring on it at the command of the Roman Emperor Augustus in around 10 CE, can have had no idea that it would one day end up some 6,000 miles from its original location south of Aswan to greet audiences in New York City.

A gift to the US by the Egyptian government in 1965 in recognition of help in rescuing the Nubian Monuments threatened by the waters of Lake Nasser after the construction of the Aswan High Dam, the temple was awarded to the Metropolitan Museum in 1967 and has stood in its specially constructed gallery since 1978.