Re-thinking Egypt

Looking at the west looking at Egypt
Looking at the west looking at Egypt // Kathryn Crandall

If you have ever wondered about the process of mummification or why it says “The Dead Shall Be Raised” above the entrance to the Grove Street Cemetery, “Echoes of Egypt: Conjuring the Land of the Pharaohs” at the Peabody Museum is the exhibit for you.

When I first heard the title of the new Egyptology Department exhibit at the Peabody, I had a clear image of what I expected to see after I pulled myself away from the Museum’s amazing dinosaur room. The Peabody is known for its somewhat dusty replicas, and this exhibit is about Egypt and conjuring up a past world, so it must be like a model pyramid or something, I thought to myself in wannabe-valley girl fashion. I was wrong.

As soon as you enter, you meet a model with surprisingly little to do with ancient Egypt. Instead, it is a scaled-down version of what the exhibit calls the “Egyptianizing gateway” that serves as the entrance to Grove Street Cemetery. In a surprise to someone with my expectations, the exhibit does not focus on presenting a portrait of the country’s past. It challenges traditional depictions of ancient Egypt by interrogating Western culture’s fascination with that civilization through modern artistic expression.

“Echoes” featured a carefully arranged array of Western objects and cultural phenomena that fetishize Egypt, even as it comes across as a bit hokey at times. My favorite part, an installation that encapsulates what’s unique about this exhibit, is what was in the 1850s known as a public mummy unwrapping, with a replica of that questionable cultural phenomenon placed in a glass box. The scene shows a few different wax figures in intricate period costumes that look like they just came out of a year-round Christmas store, with a real mummy as the ultimate Orientalist present. The mix of the creepily detailed mannequins and the visible discolored teeth of the mummy is both bizarre and enjoyable.

Another interesting artifact on display was a mummified cat. I’ll be honest with you: It raised a number of questions for me. Why was there a mummified cat? Was that how they practiced for the real thing? Did the Pharaoh want his “man/God-King’s best friend” in the afterlife? Is a cat a man’s best friend? How do modern cats feel about this?

While the Peabody set-up does render the exhibit a little stale, cool electronic elements, incongruous as they are, do some work to enhance the show. One touch screen allowed me to learn the process of mummification through a videogame-like program. The interactive screen gave me directions like, “jiggle the hook around to break up the brain” and “drag the organs onto the table.” I briefly wondered about whether this made the exhibit more or less family friendly, before deciding that it definitely made it more so.

Despite the old-school artifacts, most of the exhibit comprises either pieces of art from the 20th century that are inspired by Egyptian influences or information about people who let Egyptomania define their lives. I was a particular fan of an Egyptian mantle clock and definitely decided I want to be friends with Connecticut’s “egyptosophist” Natacha Rambova.

Still, I was not down with the font they use for their labels. It strives for an Egyptian feel but is actually hard to read and really settles on more of a California Arts and Crafts look. Do more!

I would highly recommend the visit if you have a free afternoon, especially if it is hot as it has been this week. Because the exhibit runs through January 4th, I would also recommend it when it’s cold. One more thing: I have to warn you that after spending so much time questioning which was more frightening, the wax figures and mummy, I’m definitely going to have some nightmares this weekend. I’ll keep you updated on that front.

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