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Eternal Egypt Lives on in the Hall of Ancient Egypt

A close look at the new permanent hall at the Houston Museumof Natural Science displays ancient mysteries and magic

'Mommy, look, that lady is naked."

The little girl, standing no higher than the bottom of the black Plexiglas case into which she peered, saw her immediately.

In the gloom that surrounds the brand-new permanent Hall of Ancient Egypt at the Houston Museum of Natural Science — known for its exceptional dinosaurs; the three-story Foucault Pendulum; the bedazzling Smith Gem Vault; and the amazing, if redundantly humid, Cockrell Butterfly Center — this little girl found one of the jewels of the exhibition: a tiny solid gold amulet from the Middle Kingdom, no bigger than her thumb. You had to press your big adult nose right against the glass to see her, but there she was. Exquisitely crafted, she glimmered without a blush. The small golden lady was not wearing any clothes. After her discovery and no response from her mother, the girl ran off excitedly to the next case.

Most of the pieces are on loan from other museums.
Photo by D.L. Groover
Most of the pieces are on loan from other museums.
Ancient jewelry still has the power to impress.
Photo by D.L. Groover
Ancient jewelry still has the power to impress.

In another room, dedicated to the arts and crafts of this most ancient civilization, two elderly women scanned a limestone relief panel from Akhenaten's New Kingdom. Broken and painted over at a later date, the sculpted plaque showed a man feeding a cow. The description said he was "force-feeding" the animal, as the Egyptians liked their meat fatty.

"Do you think they had pâté back then?" the woman asked her companion.

In the antechamber leading into the impressive mummy display, six schoolboys in matching red shirts were held enrapt by a docent who explained how the wily embalmers made a mush out of the dead man's brains and then pulled out the soft tissue through the nose. "Eew" and "cool" echoed down the hallway. A lot taller, the docent seemed not that much older than the students. These museum guides, a nice touch, are stationed throughout to answer questions and get people thinking. Another explained to an older couple that Cleopatra, while no beauty like Elizabeth Taylor, spoke six languages and was the most astute politician of her age. True, and just the sort of stuff that makes history come alive.

Ever since its modern unearthing by Napoleon's invading army of scholars, the wonders of this venerable civilization have fascinated and mesmerized young and old. These most ancient of ancients make us think. They wow us. Ancient Egypt never fails to evoke magic, mystery, and awe.

If it were up to me, every museum would have an Egyptian hall, so HMNS fulfills this child's dream. While there are no big pieces in this "permanent but changing" exhibition — no gigantic stone sphinxes, no towering carved pharaohs, no solid gold funerary masks to make our jaws drop — there are abundant treasures of the modest kind. Spanning 4,000 years of history, the hundreds of pieces are a diverse lot, mostly on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Germany's famed Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum; Emory University's Michael C. Carlos Museum; England's Chiddingstone Castle; and the University of Sydney's Nicholson Museum. Painted shards of bas-reliefs, jewelry, musical instruments, sculptor's tools, mummies and mummy cases are choice, prime examples of their kind.

Like a pharaoh's tomb with its endless rooms and looping passageways, the hall's space (a massive area on the museum's third floor, to make amends for the museum's shuffling its collection off into the basement for years) is dim beyond belief. Sure, tombs are pre-eminent among Egyptologists since almost every object ever displayed in a museum has been discovered inside one, to be used by the occupant in the afterlife, but Egypt is also drenched in perpetual sunlight. Its grand temples and palaces blazed in vivid, colorful decoration. Egyptians painted everything they didn't cover in electrum or eye-popping jewels or fine-wood veneers. Would a little light be out of place here? Must we stumble through the exhibit like a wayward archaeologist? The mummy room is practically indistinct. A flashlight would come in handy.

The objects in their obsidian-dark cases are pin-spot with precision, as if lit by the finest theatrical lighting designer. But the labeling is hardly user-friendly. Etched along the outside of the case, the print is small. To correlate the description to the object in the case takes unnecessary detective work, since you have to count off from left to right to find what you're looking at. Why can't the object in the case be numbered to match its description? If the curators want us to learn as well as be amazed, make it easy. More text panels and intro videos for each section will soon be added, so some of the exhibit's sketchy nature will be addressed. In a year or two, when the current museum contracts run their course and new objects show up to dazzle, minor irritations will be ancient history.

In the meantime, feast on the panoply of ancient Egypt in its most intimate moments. Get lost among the wonders. Be on the lookout for a fantastic beaded fishnet dress from the Late Period that would be too daring for even Lady Gaga; check out that bearded mummy of Ptolemaic "general" Ossipumphnoferu — a real specialty, since no one in Egypt wore beards; discover a lovingly wrapped cat mummy, whose fur pokes out between the bandages; discover a miniature broken limestone statue of a husband and wife that brings the faces of ancient Egypt smack into the present.

Eternal Egypt lives on — to provoke, captivate and beguile. Hail, Houston Museum of Natural Science!

 
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