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ARCHAEOLOGY

Ancient Cats,
Kings and Goddesses Return

After three years, six cities, 650,000 visitors and tens of thousands of traveling miles, the 155 pieces that comprise the traveling exhibition “Searching for Ancient Egypt: Art, Architecture and Artifacts from the University of Pennsylvania Museum” have come back to Philadelphia.
    The idea behind the traveling exhibition was to study and conserve pieces that had been in storage and to show them to a national audience, noted Dr. David Silverman, curator of the museum’s Egyptian section. As it turned out, the exhibition raised enough money to pay for the conservation, and more than two dozen of the artifacts were installed in the museum’s galleries soon after returning in October. The returning pieces include the bronze statue of a cat (circa 800 B.C.); a gilded funerary mask (circa 300 B.C.); the monumental doorjamb from the palace of Merenptah (circa 1200 B.C.); the head and torso of the lion goddess Sekhmet; and a limestone sarcophagus lid (circa 380-30 B.C.). Another 26 will also be installed over the next couple of years. Half of a 16-ton tomb-chapel has been preserved; the other half, now in a climate-controlled storage area, still awaits conservation (and conservation funds).
    “The exhibition went to Dallas, Denver, Seattle, Birmingham, Honolulu and Omaha,” noted Silverman, who is also professor and chair of the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, as he watched workmen muscle some of the massive artifacts into the museum’s Lower Egyptian Gallery. “Over 650,000 people saw it during that time—many of whom were Penn alumni. We got lots of e-mail from Penn alums saying that they had been here for anywhere from four to eight years and had no idea that the museum had such a beautiful collection.”
    When the objects came back, he explained, “the choice was to put them back in storage where most of them came from” and just exhibit those that had already been on display at the museum. “But rather than put everything back in storage—and since we had specially made cases for these things—we decided to keep as many things out now on exhibit as we possibly could.” One is the unique standing statue of Sekhmet, which will be “looking down on you, at the entrance into the Upper Egyptian Gallery, as you come into it from the Chinese Rotunda.”
    Another bronze figure of a king that was “sort of buried in a case has now come back,” Silverman added casually. A few years ago, a scholar from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York determined that it was none other than King Tutankhamun. “He now has his own case, and he will be in a prominent position upstairs,” said Silverman. “It’s the only statue of its time known of the king, and it has inlaid sections of solid gold.”
    The huge doorjamb of the Pharaoh Merenptah (son of Ramses II) is part of the same royal palace as the massive columns, doorways and windows currently in the Lower Egyptian Gallery. If all goes according to plan, all of the pieces will be moved to the Upper Egyptian Gallery in a couple of years.
    “In the reinstallation, all of this will be put together upstairs,” said Silverman. “Because no other palace has survived, Penn will have the only palace in the entire world that people can walk into and see. We’re going to have to do a lot of reconstruction, but the atmosphere is going to be fantastic. Instead of having statues in cases—disembodied in a large open space—we will have the statues where they belong, in the palace-style structure where they would have been placed.”


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Copyright 2001 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 1/2/01