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THE NEW EGYPTIAN GALLERY

FIRST GALLERY REOPENS AT ORIENTAL INSTITUTE MUSEUM

By Emily Teeter, Associate Curator of The Oriental Institute Museum
The University of Chicago

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 162, Summer 1999, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)


After a three year closure, the Egyptian Gallery opens to the membership in special members previews on Sunday 23 May and Wednesday 26 May. We anticipate many ohs and ahs, and looks of surprise upon the faces of our visitors who do not know exactly what to expect after the years of renovation. Speaking for the museum staff, we are delighted, and proud, of the result. Although our collection has always been acknowledged as among the finest in America, now the installation of climate control systems gives us the opportunity to exhibit even fragile textiles and reed materials. The new look of the Egyptian Gallery is due to many people - primarily Museum Director Karen L. Wilson, who had the vision and foresight to make difficult decisions that were crucial for the overall success of the project, including relocating the monumental statue of Tutankhamun, hiring a professional exhibit designer, and engaging a nationally renowned company to construct the new exhibit cases. These decisions were not easily made and represented a considerable financial commitment, but now that the gallery is complete, it is evident that it was a wise investment in the future of the Institute.

Looking back over the last three years, I can again consider the steps involved in turning an empty space into a finished gallery equipped with exhibits and labels, lighting, maps, and time lines, and to remind myself how individual objects were selected for exhibit. Getting objects from packing crates to gallery was a process that involved the entire museum staff. The first step was deciding whether the gallery should be arranged chronologically or according to theme. Conversations with colleagues including Professor Emeritus Edward F. Wente, Richard Fazzini, Chairman of the Egyptian, Classical, and Near Eastern Department at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and William H. Peck, Curator of Ancient Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts, were helpful in deciding that our collection would be best suited to a combination of approaches. Next came the decision of what basic themes and concepts should be conveyed to the museum visitor. That basic list was refined by deciding which topics could be illustrated by artifacts. For example, the environment and the geographic setting of Egypt are of paramount importance for understanding the ancient culture, yet they do not lend themselves to illustration by museum objects. Rather than omitting these topics, they are discussed in illustrated text panels. Through a process of developing topics and testing how they could be illustrated by the collection, I gradually arrived at a rough list of themes that could best be presented. When on the lecture circuit throughout the country, I visited many other museums to examine their exhibits, cabinetry, and signage.

The selection of individual artifacts for each topic was the result of weighing several factors. Does the artifact clearly relate to the concept that it is supposed to illustrate? A less critical yet important factor was whether the object was appealing from an aesthetic standpoint - will it engage the viewer and cause him or her to pause long enough to absorb the information that the exhibit conveys? Does the object's historical or cultural significance make up for an object that may be less than beautiful? A good example is the small block statue of Bakenwerel, the Chief of Police in Western Thebes at the end of the Twentieth Dynasty (pictured in News & Notes Number 159 Fall 1998, p. 19). The piece is carved of large-grained granite that does not have a smooth surface, and the base is badly chipped. Yet, the statue will be on exhibit because it sends a strong cultural message to the museum visitor about ancient Egypt - that they had chiefs of police - a point of connection between the ancient and modern worlds. It is also included for its historical importance: Bakenwerel is known from papyri that recount the investigation of the robbery of the royal tombs, which outweighs its aesthetic shortcomings. Similar reasoning accounts for including several statues that lack a head: a large limestone statue of Amun and a small statue of Amenhotep Son of Hapu, which are included because of the beauty of the rest of the statue and for the historical or cultural importance of the figure.

Once I made the preliminary selection of objects, our Conservator, Laura D'Alessandro, surveyed each piece to ensure that it was stable enough for exhibit, and to schedule it for cleaning and documentation. The next step was a review by a group made up of different "voices": Karen L. Wilson, Museum Director; Carole Krucoff, Head of Museum Education; John A. Larson, Egyptologist and Museum Archivist; Joseph Scott, Museum Preparator; and the Egyptological faculty of the Oriental Institute. This group provided invaluable and fresh feedback on the preliminary arrangements and the coordination of the drafts of the label text with the objects. Following their review, the labels were modified, and as a last step, the label copy was again edited for style and clarity. As the list of objects was finalized and their place in each case established, Joe Scott and Steven Wessley began the laborious process of making custom mounts.

No matter how good the object selection, a gallery will not be useful, inviting, and attractive if the casework and lighting are poor. The challenge of starting with an absolutely empty space approximately 90 by 36 feet was daunting. The Chicago design firm of Vinci/Hamp Architects, Inc. was engaged to transform the space into a usable museum gallery. After numerous discussions, plans were finalized for a series of built-in cases that would divide the gallery into zones. These new cases also allowed us to distribute the large stone reliefs throughout the gallery - a serious shortcoming of the old Egyptian Gallery, which could accommodate reliefs only in its southeast corner. Some of these new cases are deliberately shallow to allow visitors to get close enough to the carved and painted reliefs to admire their detail. Viewing a large variety of casework at other museums made me especially attentive to the way in which cases function. I spoke with many preparators and curators about the way that their exhibit cases opened, the maintenance of hinges and locks, and ease of use. As a result of these factors, the new cases were designed by Vinci/Hamp Architects, Inc. in conjunction with Helmut Guenschel Inc. of Baltimore. Guenschel has devised a special system of virtually invisible hinges that can support oversized sheets of glass, eliminating the distracting, and expensive, metal mullions that normally subdivide the faces of large exhibit cases. Kipley Construction Company of Chicago served as the contractor, building the limestone-clad steel boxes that support the Guenschel door assemblies. The steel frames of the cases were bolted into the floor. Carpenters covered the steel with wood that was then covered with a three-quarter inch slab of Indiana limestone that matches the stone tracery of the gallery windows. The doors were installed, and finally, the interiors were fitted with decks, back and side boards, label ramps, and light attics. Each of the new cases is illuminated with two separate minitracks, one fitted with small tube lights for overall light, the other with mini-spots. Each track can be individually regulated. Finally, while all this was going on, Joe Scott, Steven Wessley, and Randolph Olive cleaned many of the elegant wood cases and fitted them with label ramps and new decks; like the new cases, these wood cases are lined with a handsome unbleached linen.


Emily Teeter, Ph.D., is Associate Curator of the Oriental Institute Museum and Curator of the new Egyptian Gallery.

Revised: April 28, 2011

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