Gifts From the Past: Isabel Brown Wilson's Legacy to MFAH

There sits in the MFAH Caroline Weiss Law building an exhibition that is equal parts art history and memoriam: "Gifts from the Past: The Isabel Brown Wilson Collection." "Gifts from the Past" is the last legacy from Isabel Brown Wilson, who as an art collector and art lover (and daughter of Houston entrepreneur George R. Brown) gave her time to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston as trustee and chairman, and after her death, on March 27, 2012. Wilson was quoted as saying, "Majoring in the history of art is one of the cleverest things I ever did."

The MFAH might agree; her influence is felt all throughout its space. During her time as chairman, the museum acquired nearly 16,000 new works of art and staged 200 new exhibitions. Included in the artists added to the MFAH roster are Rembrandt, Georgia O'Keeffe and James Turrell, whose "The Light Inside" exhibition recently reopened as a retrospective.

Taken by itself, the exhibition intersects ancient Greek, Roman, Mesopotamian and Egyptian art and customs. The clearest connection that stands out between these ancient civilizations is status and wealth. For example, Mummy Portrait of a Young Girl, a wax piece from 30 B.C. to 100 A.D., fuses two cultures: the Egyptian practice of mummification and the Roman practice of creating portraits of the mummified.

The young girl's pretty gold locket and fanciful purple robes are more than mere decoration; they tell of the upper class stock she must have come from, as the hot wax used to make the work of art was a fickle substance, drying quickly and requiring the artist to work swiftly and precisely. Families would pay a pretty penny for this service.

There are connections inside the individual cultures as well. Like Turrell's "Light," which in addition to being a trippy walkway serves as a link between the Caroline Weiss Law building and the Audrey Jones Beck building, much of ancient Egypt's art could be used for practical purposes and then recycled. A faience is a blue crystal that served dual purposes: Egyptians either manipulated faience into jewelry, game pieces, furniture and bowls and cups, or shaped the crystal into small figurines -- called shabtis -- to be placed in the graves of the mummified dead to protect them in the afterlife. Shabti of Tjai-en-hebu is one of three Shabtis on display just outside the gallery's front doors.

The Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Sumerian cultures made up ancient Mesopotamia, located in what is now present-day Iraq. Displayed in their section of the exhibit are not status symbols, but religious links to the past, represented by Head of a Male, a Babylonian sculpture dating back to 1500 B.C. Being that only priests were allowed inside temples of that era, these busts served as intermediaries for worship in the temples. Like the shabtis of Egyptian culture, used to protect pharaohs -- who thought themselves to be gods -- the Babylonian bust also interacts with the divine.

In return for Wilson's philanthropy and service, MFAH has housed "Gifts from the Past" in the Alice Pratt Brown Gallery, on its first floor. If the two names sound familiar, it is because they are: Wilson is the daughter of Brown, who served as the museum Board of Trustees first female chairman. Wilson, following after from 2001 to 2007, was the second. Like mother, like daughter.

"Gifts from the Past" closes on October 27. Visit mfah.org for more information.

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