The Houston Museum of Natural Science's just-opened, 10,000 square foot Hall of Ancient Egypt exhibition wing may be new but the museum's commitment to the subject is not.
"We have had an Egyptian exhibit in one form or another going back at least to the 1980s and probably earlier, says Dirk Van Tuerenhout, Ph.D., HMNS Curator of Anthropology. "I joined [the museum in 1999] and we had a moderately large exhibit and that shrunk over the years as the loans went back [to the lenders]. Eventually we had just a small [exhibit] in the basement but it stayed very popular. We have had our own mummy for a while now and school groups coming in every year to see it."
The exhibit currently on display in the hall is made up of pieces on long-term loan from other museums. It's a permanent exhibition, that will be permanently changing, Van Tuerenhout explains.
Tom Hardwich, HMNS Consulting Curator of Egyptology adds, " We're getting wonderful pieces. The particular strength in [these current] loans is the material from the Giza pyramids. It's from the tombs of the courtiers, from the people who served the pharaoh. This is material that's from about 2,600 to 2,200 BC, one of the earliest phases of civilization. It was one of the golden ages of the Egyptian culture."
Artifacts haven't been able to leave Egypt for the last 30 years or so, so the HMNS is coordinating with museums that acquired their exhibit items before that. "Egypt allows King Tut to go on very short tours, but nothing can permanently leave the country," says Van Tuerenhout. "We're working with museums in Europe and North America that had established collections."
The museum has been arranging loans with several organizations including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Roemer und Pelizaeus Museum in Germany, as well as the Chiddingstone Castle and the Salford Museum and Art Gallery, both in the U.K.
Hardwick says, "They're objects coming from their reserves. They have been on display in the past, but which as display interests change, they've gone into storage." Some have been in storage for decades, which does the public a disservice, Hardwick says. In exchange for the loan, the HMNS defrays the costs of conservation. "The items are conserved and on display. It's to the benefit of all concerned."
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Both Hardwick and Van Tuerenhout expect a big response to the new exhibit hall, especially from kids. Crowds of excited kids can get noisy sometimes, but at the HMNS, that's to be expected. "We're a family-friendly museum, with our doors wide open to everyone. And we like to see enthusiasm from our visitors. In that way, we're a little bit different from the fine arts museums, where there's a 'Shhhh! Don't talk, be quiet!' atmosphere," Van Tuerenhout says. He laughingly adds, "I don't know why they do that; maybe they think the paintings might be surprised or something."
Hardwick agrees. "Most [curators] got the bug when we went to the museum at a very early age so we know how important a friendly environment is to people. We want to get people museum minded."
"We want people to leave the museum having learned something, yes," says Van Tuerenhout, " but we also want them to be comfortable, to know that this is a place where they can come back as often as they want."
The Houston Museum of Natural Science is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, with special holiday and summer hours 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Memorial Day and after June 7. 5555 Hermann Park Drive. For information, call 713-639-4629 or visit hmns.org. General museum admission, including the Hall of Ancient Egypt is $10 to $15. Free admission 2 p.m. to closing on Thursdays.