Exhibition of the Month: Ancient Egypt, Its Life and Art

For the past three months, I’ve shared an exhibition from each of the major case studies in my dissertation: the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions, the Community Art Center Project, and the VMFA Artmobile. Now that we’ve introduced each of the three programs, let’s revisit them, this time highlighting different shows. Today, we’ll look at Ancient Egypt: Its Life and Art, another show organized through the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions.

A display of Egyptian artifacts at the Met. Pieces like these appeared in the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibition, Ancient Egypt: Its Life and Art.

Historical Background

Ancient Egypt: Its Life and Art was one of the Met’s three inaugural shows in its Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions program. The other two were China and Japan: An Exhibition of the Art of the Far East, and Arms and Armor, Textiles, and Costume Dolls: An Exhibition of European Art1492-1776. The museum divided the latter two shows into smaller exhibitions as the demand for shows increased. Ancient Egypt, however, remained intact and circulated throughout the city more or less as it had appeared in 1933. More on that later.

The archival record suggests that Ancient Egypt remained a consistently popular show. From 1933 to 1938, it appears regularly in the exhibition schedule, sometimes showing at two or three different venues in a given year. The exhibition’s popularity coincided with other Egyptian-related activity happening at the Met, with renovated galleries, excavations, and other work attesting to a robust Egyptology department.

But this is where it gets odd. As far as I can tell, Ancient Egypt doesn’t appear in the schedule again after 1938. If the show did get exhibited in other locations, the museum’s publications don’t mention it. I don’t know why this is the case. Perhaps the Met needed its contents for gallery renovations. Or maybe the visiting sites had moved onto different topics. Either way, Ancient Egypt: Its Life and Art, seems to have disappeared from the exhibition circuit, at least as it’s documented within the archival record.

What’s in the Exhibition?

Ancient Egypt: Its Life and Art encompassed five thousand years of Egyptian history. Think about that for a second. That’s an incredible span of time to cover in an exhibition, especially a traveling exhibition dealing with limited space. Checklists from the exhibition preserved in the archives include hundreds of objects. Most of these pieces were small, encompassing carved scarabs, jewelry, and other readily portable objects. Some artifacts reflected the luxury of royal life, the process of mummification, and other more spectacular aspects of Egyptian life. Yet the majority of the objects seem to have focused on daily life, with household tools included alongside jewelry.

While researching this exhibition, however, the mutability of the checklists stood out to me more than any particular object. Addendums to checklists and other documents show that the Met staff regularly changed objects within the exhibitions, including Ancient Egypt. Curators periodically replaced objects with comparable examples, swaps that might superficially not appear different but would nonetheless change the show. In other words, the exhibitions appeared different through their content as well as site. You’d get similar materials, but no two installations would be exactly the same.

Ancient Egypt: Sharing Art and the Museum

These swaps reflected the geographic scope of the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions. Since the program concentrated on New York City, the shows never traveled more than a few miles from the museum. Unlike canned, traveling shows that might travel hundreds or thousands of miles to their next destination, the relative proximity of the exhibitions to their home sites allowed for some flexibility in the checklists. New York traffic aside, it’s easier to swap out objects when the museum is only a few miles away and you don’t have to seal everything in crates fit for cross-country transit.

But it also speaks to the broader ambitions of the Met. In periodically rotating or changing objects, the Met treated the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions like permanent collection installations rather than traveling exhibitions. In sending out its objects, the museum wasn’t just sharing art: it provided access to itself as an institution. Through the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions, the Met extended its gallery presence and curatorial practices beyond its walls and into the city.

My Thoughts on Ancient Egypt

Reading about this exhibition got me thinking about the curricula in American public education. More specially, I reflected on why students study some topics and not others.

Case in point: I remember spending a lot of time learning about ancient Egypt in school. In middle school, we completed a weeks-long unit where we learned about pyramids, mummification, and hieroglyphs. Nor was school the only place to learn about Egypt. When not obsessing over World War II, I remember the History Channel regularly airing Egyptian documentaries. Then there’s the relative accessibility of Egyptian materials in the United States. In college, I took my parents through the Egyptian exhibit at the Field Museum, for instance. During my onsite research trips to the Met, I regularly walked through the Egyptian galleries because that was the closest restroom I could consistently find without getting lost.

What’s Left Out

The availability of Egyptian materials in the United States, and even more so in Europe, speaks to a longstanding fascination with the place arguably going back to the Carter excavations and earlier. It also speaks to the intersections between archaeology, plunder, colonialism, and the privileging of Western perspectives in knowledge. Egypt appears in Western school curricula because the West claims it as its heritage.

Yet what’s equally important is what’s left out, what Western civilization considered unimportant. Not surprisingly, those perspectives are Black, Indigenous, Latino, or anything resisting easy assimilation into white, heteronormative culture. In middle school, I knew more about ancient Egypt than I did the Indigenous peoples living in central Arizona. If it weren’t for my parents taking an active interest themselves, I probably wouldn’t know anything about them. Similarly, in school, I learned all about medieval England after we finished with Egypt, but knew little about Arizona’s Hispano histories and cultures. In following a “standard” American education, I learned history as understood through a Western, European perspective. It’s no wonder I gravitated toward Renaissance art in college; it’s what I knew.

Beyond Egypt: Next Month’s Exhibition

So that’s Ancient Egypt. We’ll move on to another topic next month, but don’t think we’re finished with Egypt yet. As we’ll see in a future post, the VMFA also took its Egyptian artifacts on the road.

But that’s a future story. Next month, we’ll circle back to the Community Art Center Project to explore another one of its exhibitions.

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