From the Mythic Nile to the Mighty Ohio

June 30th, 2019  |  Published in *, June/July 2019

“Egypt: The Time of the Pharaohs”

Cincinnati Museum Center, 1301 Western Avenue   Cincinnati, OH

Through August 18, 2019

Step into a time when civilization grew along the Nile, pyramids dotted the skyline and people believed gods walked among us……

Coffin of the official photo, Pa-Ser c. 1428-1397 BC Courtesy of Roemer und-Pelizaeus Museum

From the mythic Nile to the mighty Ohio, “Egypt: The Time of Pharaohs” made its U.S. premier at the beautiful Art Deco Union Terminal Cincinnati Museum Center.  The exhibition is open all summer until August 18.  It is a ticketed event and the largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts to travel abroad with over 350 original artifacts, some dating back 4,500 years ago.

Why does ancient Egyptian art captivate us so? Ancient Egyptian art is so unlike art made in adjacent regions or in parallel times – think of Egypt’s neighbor Mesopotamia – the art works and architecture in Mesopotamia are not roughly similar.  I think of ancient Mayan art in the Americas and there is a similar “Were these aliens who made this?” reaction to the bold, geometric and iconic images these cultures have made on their respective continents. To our contemporary eyes, even with flashy Kardashian tropes in the cultural mindscape and oversized architecture part of global cityscapes thanks to steel, mechanization and computer-aided design and technologies to name a few elements, ancient Egyptian art is dramatic, theatrical, elegant and otherworldly.  Just the size of their temples and monuments alone defies logical comprehension.

Exhibitions of ancient Egyptian art typically sell out.  There have been long lines at entry times in major cities showing an important Egyptian exhibition. New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art says last year’s Michelangelo exhibit I reviewed for Aeqai is the 10th-most visited exhibition in the museum’s history. However, the Michelangelo exhibit did not come close to surpassing the attendance records set by the museum’s top two exhibits. “Treasures of Tutankhamen,” a five month-exhibition of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh’s artifacts in the 1970s, and Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” broke the million-visitor mark. A million visitors in the 1970’s?

Egyptomania is not a new phenomenon. Many cultures have emulated aspects of ancient Egypt.  Greeks and Romans in particular were fascinated by Egyptian architecture. They were putting pyramids in their own designs, and St. Peter’s in Rome has an obelisk in front of it. “Cincinnati Museum Center has an excellent reputation and links natural and cultural, material and immaterial heritage in an impressive way,” says Dr. Regine Schulz, Director and CEO of the Roemer und-Pelizaeus – Museum and curator of Egypt: The Time of Pharaohs. “It is an ideal place to tell the fascinating story of a culture which survived so long and had a huge impact on later culture and generations, including ours.”  The Museum Center tells us: “Over 5,000 years ago, one of the most advanced civilizations developed along the River Nile. Ever since, ancient Egypt – the land of pharaohs, extraordinary art, miracles and mysteries – has captivated imaginations all over the world. Egypt: The Time of Pharaohs unveils the mysteries and explores the realities of daily life in ancient Egypt. The extraordinary exhibition looks beyond popular culture’s fantastical portrayals to examine the lives of commoners and god-kings and queens alike.”

What could be more fitting than to tell the story of the remarkable people of the Nile Valley and bring it to the Ohio Valley? “This is an incredible honor for us to host the U.S. premiere of such a remarkable exhibition right here in Cincinnati,” says Elizabeth Pierce, president and CEO of Cincinnati Museum Center. “People of all ages, all backgrounds are fascinated by ancient Egypt – the pyramids, the mummies, the pharaohs, the culture – but this exhibition tells its story in a way that actually puts you there in the Nile River Valley. This is just another way we are bringing the world to Cincinnati in ways many have never experienced before.”

Head of Hatshepsut as a sphinx c. 1479-1458 BC
Courtesy of Egyptian Museum Berlin

This exhibition brilliantly reveals to us both the glorious and the everyday.  Let’s start with glorious.  The bust of Queen Hatshepsut, featured prominently in this exhibit, would make a fabulous Hollywood movie.  She wore the false beard of a Pharaoh! She took over the throne after her husband’s passing! How did her husband die? How did she rule for so long? Even if you never read Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings – he considered this epic novel set in ancient Egypt his magnum opus – one’s brother may also become one’s husband and a daughter may become a wife. Palace intrigue was always in play.  I am not saying the Egyptians invented being really naughty, but historians must have been gob smacked and embarrassed when they attempted to unravel dynasties, family ties, dynastic overthrows and such.  It is hard to imagine that Hatshepsut even survived the throne, false beard or not. Hatshepsut is portrayed in a classical sphinx portrait and as such it is generalized which was the standard for the time.

It is when the great Queen Nefertiti arrives that we have a more individualistic portrait in the hands of the court sculptor Tutmose. Of course the bust of Nefertiti will never leave the Archeological Museum in Berlin where it has been the centerpiece of their collection and the course of great strife between Germany and Egypt. The portrait bust was discovered in the early 20th century by a German archeology team. She was made of limestone and stucco around 1345 B.C.E. The arresting beauty of this sculptural portrait has captured the human imagine since its discovery and has cemented the ancient Egyptian queen’s relevance as a global pop-culture icon. The bust of Nefertiti is one of the world’s most enduring artworks and is featured in an excellent video in the exhibition.

From the glorious, of which there are numerous statues and stunning jewelry, this museum exhibition gives us ample views of Egyptian afterlife.  Their papyrus fragment from the acclaimed Book of the Dead is exquisite as a work of art and depicts the careful weighing of the heart of the deceased.  While it may not be widely known all the details that are encoded in Egyptian funerary procedures, most everyone knows about mummies.  And this exhibit does not disappoint in bringing to Cincinnati a beautiful mummy and a coffin.  The wooden coffin is of Nakht, with the lovely Egyptian blue coloring, faint but still discernible.  Further this exhibit has the actual mummy of Ta-khar, a beautifully preserved female mummy from Thebes.  Also featured is her wonderfully painted mummy case. The paintings on the mummy case are classical in their beauty, iconography, mysteriousness and elegance. Did the Egyptians invent great design in the West as the Chinese did in the East?

Egypt is so well known for its reverence for the afterlife.  But what about everyday life on the Nile?  Here too, this exhibition provides art works, artifacts, videos and interactive as well as wall texts to help us immerse ourselves into the culture and times of ancient Egypt. The exhibit features stunningly detailed models of once-lost cities and landscapes, including models of complex temples with a dazzling array of rooms and corridors, each with specific uses and functions. Who took care of the palace?  Who delivered grain? What did a commoner’s home look like? All of these questions and more are answered.

We are fortunate to have the treasures that such shows as Egypt: The Time of Pharaohs offers us. The exhibition features objects from the University of Aberdeen Museums in Aberdeen, Scotland; the Roemer und-Pelizaeus – Museum in Hildesheim, Germany; the Berlin Egyptian Museum in Berlin, Germany; and the Gustav-Lubcke-Museum in Hamm, Germany. Egypt: The Time of Pharaohs has been produced as a joint venture between Lokschuppen Rosenheim, the University of Aberdeen Museums, the Roemer und-Pelizaeus – Museum Hildesheim and Museums Partner Austria.

Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC) at Union Terminal is a nationally recognized institution and national historic landmark. Dedicated to sparking community dialogue, insight and inspiration, CMC was awarded the 2009 National Medal for Museum and Library Service from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and received accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums in 2012. CMC is one of a select few museums in the nation with both of these honors, making it a unique asset and a vital community resource. Union Terminal has been voted the nation’s 45th most important building by the American Institute of Architects.

–Cynthia Kukla

Comments are closed.