Egypt up close at Penn Museum

WHAT: The Egyptian Collection at the Penn Museum

WHERE: The Upper and Lower Egyptian galleries, in the heart of the Museum, 3620 South St.

WHY VISIT?: The Museum’s collection of Egyptian and Nubian material is one of the largest of its kind in the country. In total, it includes more than 42,000 objects—including architecture, statuary, domestic artifacts, textiles, pottery, tools and human remains—collected during more than a century of archaeological research. The collection spans all of ancient Egypt, from 4,000 B.C. to the 7th Century A.D.

ONE OF THE BEST: “[The collection] is one of the largest in the world,” says Joe Wegner, assistant curator of the Egyptian Section and associate professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Penn. “And one of the distinctions of the collection is that it’s virtually entirely an archaeological collection—meaning the items were excavated through scientific excavations that were supported by Penn.”

PALATIAL EXHIBIT: In the Lower Egyptian Gallery, visitors can explore massive pieces from the most well-preserved royal palace ever excavated in Egypt, including the palace’s gateway entrance, massive columns, doorways and windows. The palace on display here was built for the pharaoh Merenptah, the 13th son and successor of Ramesses II, who ruled from 1224-1214 B.C. It was excavated between 1915 and 1922 by Penn Museum Curator Clarence S. Fisher.

PALATIAL ROOM, TOO: The gallery is “one of the grand architectural spaces on Penn’s campus,” Wegner says. “The Lower Egyptian Gallery is a magnificent room with a vaulted ceiling designed by a famous architect named Rafael Guastavino, who specialized in constructing these magnificent terracotta values.

IT’S GOOD TO BE KING: The inscriptions on the huge palace gateway show Merenptah “expressing dominance” over Egypt’s enemies.

CUT-DOWN COLUMNS: The columns that dominate the gallery are impressive enough—but Wegner points out that they aren’t actually shown at full height. Even with Guastavino’s soaring ceiling, the columns in original form would have been too tall for the room. “If they were displayed at full height, they would rise much higher than the ceiling of the chamber,” he says.

THE SPHINX: The centerpiece of the Lower Egyptian Gallery is a 13-ton red granite sphinx—the third-largest sphinx in the world. Penn’s sphinx was found in the Egyptian center of Memphis, but was actually quarried 600 miles away near the southern city of Aswan. “You can see one of the interesting features of the sphinx is its eroded face, you can see how in ancient times it was buried up to its shoulders, for millennia. It was eroded through wind and sand and that gives it a bit of mystique.”

SUMMING UP: “The Lower Egyptian Gallery, in particular, is visually just an amazing space,” Wegner says. “As you stand at one end of the gallery and you’re looking down at the face of Ramesses II, you get a sense of the mystique and mystery of ancient Egypt. It’s a great introduction to the symbols of ancient Egypt and you get a sense of the long history of ancient Egypt. The span of history is remarkable.”

Originally published on October 30, 2008