Organized by the American Federation of Arts and The British Museum, Temples and Tombs: Treasures of Egyptian Art from The British Museum featured approximately 85 objects spanning the full range of pharaonic history — from shortly before the Third Dynasty, about 2686 B.C., to the Roman occupation of the fourth century A.D. The exhibit provided a rare opportunity to view renowned Egyptian masterworks and lesser-known treasures before their final return to The British Museum.
The Museum was the opening venue for Temples and Tombs, which traveled to four additional venues, including the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida; the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina; the Albuquerque Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico; and the Fresno Metropolitan Museum in Fresno, California.
Included in the exhibition were sculptures, reliefs, papyri, ostraca, jewelry, cosmetic objects, and funerary items in a variety of media – including stone, wood, terra cotta, gold, glass, and papyrus — that reflected the richness and scope of The British Museum’s exceptional collection. Selected by Edna R. Russmann, curator of Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Middle Eastern Art at the Brooklyn Museum, Temples and Tombs explored four distinct themes: objects from the lives of artists and nobles; the king and the temple; statues of Egyptians from temples and tombs; and the tomb, death, and the afterlife. The four thematic divisions of the exhibition allowed for a specific examination of these masterworks in the context of the Egyptian temporal and cosmic world view.
The first section of the exhibition was devoted to objects used by artists and nobles, offering an insightful look into Egyptian daily life. Among the included items were objects of decoration and protection, such as amulets, jewelry, and cosmetic containers. Statues and paintings of figures portrayed the Egyptians’ enjoyment of jewelry; their hairstyles, makeup, and clothing; their household furniture; and the company they kept, including servants and family. Other items, such as a scribal palette, drawing board, and inked grid, provided information about artisans’ working lives. Hieroglyphic writing on many of the objects demonstrated the masterly level of graphic communication attained by the Egyptians.
Featuring numerous exceptional examples of royal representation, the second section of the exhibition examined the role of the Egyptian king as the intermediary between the divine and human worlds. Immediately recognizable by his garments, crown, and the oval cartouche in which his name was usually inscribed, an Egyptian king was the highest-ranking mortal and the individual best able to please the gods. This section of the exhibition also considered the function of the temple, as the central physical expression of the unique relationship between the king and the gods.
The third section of Temples and Tombs considered the role of the private statue, in the context of both the temple and the tomb. The earliest statues of private individuals were found in tombs, as a place where the spirit of the deceased could reside. Private statues were also found in temples, representing an individual’s status, wealth, and ability to partake in cult offerings. The examples in this section allowed viewers to see both the continuity and change in the representation of private art from about 2600 B.C. to the first century A.D.
The exhibition concluded with an exploration of the Egyptian concepts of the tomb, death, and the afterlife. Seeking to extend life after death, the Egyptians made provisions in their burials for the afterlife, although only the affluent could afford the full array of tomb items and rituals intended to protect the body of the deceased and insure a successful afterlife for the soul. Many of the bowls, palettes, headrests, ostraca, and other utilitarian objects in the exhibition were embedded with protective symbols because they were intended to accompany their owners to the tomb.
In her contribution to the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, Guest Curator Edna R. Russmann explains, “The Egyptians were passionate in their love of life. It inspired in them an equally strong determination to make life last forever, a goal they pursued with extraordinary intensity and ingenuity. It seems ironic that we should be the accidental beneficiaries of their quest for eternal life. We are extremely fortunate that this quest extended to surrounding themselves in death with objects from life in tombs and temple caches.”
Temples and Tombs: Treasures of Egyptian Art from The British Museum was organized by the American Federation of Arts and The British Museum. The national tour of the exhibition was made possible, in part, by the Philip and Janice Levin Foundation fund for Collection-Based Exhibitions at the American Federation of Arts.