Ancient Egyptian artifacts come together for institute exhibit
By Amy Biancolli
Reunions require complicated planning. But the Albany Institute of History & Art has pulled off a doozy by reuniting the far-flung coffin parts of Ankhefenmut, a 3,000-year-old 21st Dynasty Egyptian priest and sculptor in the Temple of Mut, who had long been separated from two important pieces of his funerary box.
The lid came from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The mummy board, or inner lid, vacated its usual public display at the British Museum in London. The coffin bottom — and Ankhefenmut himself — have resided at the institute since their 1909 arrival from Cairo with a second, partially wrapped Ptolemaic-era mummy that dates to around 300 B.C.
Separated for over a century, Ankhefenmut and his sundry coffin parts have been reassembled for "GE Presents: The Mystery of the Albany Mummies," a show seven years in the making that opens Saturday, runs through June 8 and explores the life, afterlife and archeological saga of AIHA's most popular denizens.
"It's putting the mummy and coffin into context and reuniting the parts," said guest curator Peter Lacovara, an Egyptologist who lives in Albany but works for the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta. "It's putting all the pieces back together again. Part of an archeologist's work is to reconstruct the past — so this is a more physical version of what we do."
"They're bringing together material that's not been together for more than 100 years. ... It's pretty important," said Nicholas Reeves, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is lending 21 items to the AIHA exhibit. Reeves is slated to give a talk (on a different archeological reunion) at 2 p.m. Sunday, one of several lectures scheduled at the Institute between now and April.
The mummies "are the most popular exhibit at the museum, and they have been since the moment they arrived," Executive Director Tammis K. Groft said earlier this week. She and Lacovara walked through galleries where elements of the exhibit lined the walls, sat in display cases or lay in crates, unopened. Still more items were due to arrive by courier.
Spread over 5,000 square feet of gallery space, the exhibit will showcase almost 300 items, the bulk of them major new loans from museums and private collections around the world. The show highlights a few surprises unearthed by CT scans and X-rays conducted on the pair in 2012, including a whopper: the younger, half-wrapped mummy, long believed to be female, was actually male. But because he was separated from his coffin, he remains anonymous.
Not Ankhefenmut. Lacovara, who reads hieroglyphs, spotted the link to the Albany mummy when he spied the name on the board in London. The recent imaging pegged him as a sculptor (thanks to his lopsided musculature) and confirmed his identity, which was long surmised from the coffin bottom. The show unveils yet another revelation: the remnants of Ankhefenmut's priestly robe, a rare find identified by Lacovara when the mummies were transported for scanning. "All these years, we just thought it was a piece of balled-up linen," Groft said. It is now unballed and displayed with care, along with a translucent, full-length scrim illustrating the garment's likely appearance.
Both Ankhefenmut and his gender-tweaked companion were purchased from the Cairo Museum by AIHA trustee Samuel Brown, who went shopping at a time of peak supply and strong demand in the market for Egyptian artifacts. Lacovara said the Cairo Museum even ran a sale room — for institutions, not individuals — to cope with the glut of mummies. Meanwhile, museums everywhere were feeling the pressure to buy their own. "In order to be a real museum," Groft said, "You needed mummies."
The new exhibit devotes a room to Egyptomania and its many cultural artifacts, including a small model of the Central Park Obelisk (a gift to Frederic Church and on loan from the Olana Historic Site) and an elaborate inlaid wooden table outfitted with four jackal heads and a Sphinx (on loan from the Albany Masonic Hall Association). Other rooms hold a bust of the warrior lioness Sekhmet (on loan from the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley, Calif.) and a tiny, wrapped crocodile mummy (on loan from a private collector).
Meanwhile, the museum is gearing up for teacher workshops, school visits, family programming and on-site interactive displays. On Monday, education director Erika Sanger showed off a soft-sculpture mummy with removable organs. "And now the piece de resistance," she said, and flipped open the schnozz. Reaching in, she pulled out a long snake of brains.
The bottom line: people love mummies, she said. That's been true all along, as any parent who has spent any time schlepping children to the institute's mummy room will confirm. "Now they can get the full story," said Lacovara. "They've only seen the tip of the iceberg, and now this is the whole shebang." Or, switching metaphors: "They just had an appetizer, and this is sort of the main course. So it does put them in context. It's not just the mummy now."