Exhibition of the Month: Art from Ancient Egypt

A few months ago, we looked at an ancient Egyptian exhibit the Metropolitan Museum circulated throughout New York City. Today, we’ll consider another Egyptian show. This time, the VMFA is the exhibit’s organizer, and rather than circulate throughout one city, it’s traveling an entire state. Let’s check out Art from Ancient Egypt!

Art from Ancient Egypt, 1955-1958. This installation photo appeared in several magazines and newspapers.

Historical Background

Art from Ancient Egypt traveled across Virginia from 1955 to 1958. Letters from the museum’s director, Leslie Cheek, indicate that the museum had settled on Egypt as the Artmobile’s second exhibition by 1954. To plan for the installation, museum staff worked up a full-scale maquette of the Artmobile gallery and set it up inside the main museum. There, they could plan out the exhibition’s layout to scale, working within the dimensional parameters of the Artmobile space.

Like its predecessor, Little Dutch Masters, the show included audio recordings in addition to physical objects. The exhibition also featured color stereo slides installed alongside the artworks, taken expressly for the museum by two archaeologists in the Nile Valley. Through these slides, the museum showed viewers where these objects came from, providing a sense of context.

What’s in the Exhibition?

Art from Ancient Egypt included 42 works spanning 5,000 years of Egyptian culture. The pieces on view consisted of the VMFA’s permanent collection and loans from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Objects included jewelry, household tools, statuary, and mummy coffins. A mummified cat from the Met especially caught the attention of journalists and other publicists. As writer Dorothy Ulrich Troubetzkoy opined in one article, “the cat, of course, is that dehydrated variety of feline–a mummy–which should fascinate the small fry who might otherwise figure they are allergic to museums.”

The show was organized into three different sections: “Gods and Rulers,” “Life After Death,” and “Life on Earth.” To demarcate these different sections, the curators repainted the interior two different colors: terra cotta red, and a deep green. The back of the Artmobile, where the funerary items were kept, was arranged to resemble a tomb chamber. Whereas Little Dutch Masters featured light monkscloth to evoke the airy quality of a modern gallery, the curators for Ancient Egypt contrasted dark colors with illuminating spotlights to enhance the drama and mystery of the objects on view.

My Thoughts on Ancient Egypt: The Power of Loans

Aside from the popularity of ancient Egypt in American art museums, and all the fraught baggage that comes with that interest, this show makes me think about a few different things.

First, like Little Dutch Masters, this show emphasizes the VMFA’s ambition in positioning itself as a leading museum. Whereas the previous show featured works from a prominent American collector, this exhibition includes loans from the Met. That’s not coincidental. Throughout his tenure as Director, Cheek cultivated relationships with major East Coast museums, with the loan being an especially potent means of establishing connections. As Caroline M. Riley argues in MoMA Goes to Paris in 1938, loans are an important way of establishing relationships among museums.

In borrowing works from other institutions, museums demonstrate several things to each other. One, they show they can look after the works with the same degree of care and professionalism. Two, they’re establishing a precedent for sharing works in the future. They’re implying that their collections are comparable in quality. By featuring the Met’s objects alongside its own, the VMFA argues for itself as a peer with similar collections and professionalism.

Art from Ancient Egypt as a Mobile Gallery

The actual installation of Art from Ancient Egypt also communicated the museum’s ambitions. Publicity and newspaper articles from the period emphasize how spatially distinct the Egyptian show was from its Dutch predecessor. Again, this isn’t coincidental. In completely reconfiguring the Artmobile’s appearance, the museum emphasizes its status as a fully mobile gallery. This isn’t just a truck filled with art. It’s a bona fide gallery as capable of dramatic curation as any in-house space. What the VMFA offers to its museum peers is a gallery that can truly travel anywhere while offering world-class art and curation. Keep in mind, of course, subsequent conservation advancements will complicate and challenge this assertion.

In the context of the 1950s, however, the Artmobile represents a truly modern response to the challenges of providing rural art access on a level comparable to exhibitions in major metropolitan centers. Indeed, throughout the duration of the first Artmobile program, the VMFA insisted that it developed the concept first, using pioneering rhetoric to emphasize its claims. Of course, any such assertion is more complicated than that, as the artmobile concept has precedents going back to at least the 1930s. Nor was the VMFA the only museum researching the potential of artmobiles during the midcentury. But claiming that it had developed a mobile gallery capable of the same level of exhibition design as in-house buildings bolstered the VMFA’s reputation as an innovative, progressive institution.

Ancient Egypt: Between Fine Art and the Carnivalesque

There’s one other quality that comes to mind when I think of the Artmobile. That’s the juxtaposition between fine art and the carnivalesque. In addition to schools and other educational institutions, the Artmobile appeared at commercial venues like grocery stores and fairs. Many newspapers commented on the contrast between the Artmobile’s contents and the spectacles surrounding it. Troubetzkoy encapsulates this contrast in the following description: “When the Virginia State Fair opens on Friday, it’s going to have a museum on wheels as well as barkers and girlie shows, ferris wheels and kiddie rides, shooting galleries and wheels of chance, bacon and steak on the hoof, blue ribbon jellies, bedspreads, apples and corn.”

The settings in which the Artmobile appeared underscored a tension between museums as historically aristocratic institutions and their aspirations as populist educators. In appearing at fairs and other entertainment venues, the Artmobile joins an inventory of carnival activities. It’s presented as one of many potential entertainments from which visitors can choose to attend, whether it’s viewing ancient Egyptian artifacts or taking a spin on the ferris wheel. Indeed, some newspapers observed how the Artmobile itself actively contributed to the carnival’s multisensory experience through its audio technology. Playing period music or announcing exhibition showings offered a seemingly cultured contrast to the proclamations of the carnival barker.

Ancient Egypt: Disrupting Boundaries

Not everyone appreciated this more populist approach. Letters from VFWC members to VMFA staff express reservations over the Artmobile’s carnivalesque connotations. Such critiques are not unique to the 1950s. Many people still feel uncomfortable with the idea of museums appealing to popular audiences. And they often express that discomfort by describing populist efforts as undignified to the museum’s collections or educational focus.

In transporting renowned works of art to settings associated with entertainment as well as education, the Artmobile challenged the boundaries affiliated with museums regarding function and intended audience. Like the dime museums of the nineteenth century, it endeavored to synthesize education and entertainment. That made some supporters uncomfortable. That discomfort, in turn, highlights ongoing tensions regarding the museum’s place in society.

Next Month’s Exhibition

So there you have it for Art from Ancient Egypt. We’ll visit the Artmobile again before the end of the school year. When we do though, get ready for a big surprise, as we’ll talk about the museum’s second, larger artmobile. See you then!

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