Ancient Art Gallery opens at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

New galleries offer view of objects from ancient Egyptian tomb.

I listened to Robert Cohon, curator of ancient art at the Nelson-Atkins, talk about his eighth-grade daughter’s textbooks and how dry the content is. He wonders if students get turned off of things that they should find exciting — history and art being at the top of that list. I thought about how I had to take it upon myself to seek enrichment. Attending the sneak peek of the new Ancient Art Galleries took me back to my youth. During the summer breaks, I would pick a topic and spend hours in the library, researching that topic. One summer, I studied ancient Egypt. I was fascinated with all things dusty, musty and thousands of years old. Nor would I presume to be on same level as Marc F. Wilson, the retiring director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, but Wilson says he liked reading about King Tut when he was s child. He would hide under the covers and read.  “There was a pounding at the door of intense imagination when I read about ancient Egypt,” he says.

As a kid, I would head to the public library and pick up all the books I could. I would visit the juvenile section and get the books that I could understand easily. Then I would head to the adult section, same Dewey decimal numbers, and would check those books out too. Cohon’s enthusiasm for mummies and tombs made me think about those past days. It tickled me when he said the exhibit is designed to engage kids. That’s one thing I know the Nelson staff encourages — getting kids to be engaged in art and history. The Ford Learning Center is a great fit to allow children to learn about art and create pieces inspired by those great works of art, but I think this is going to be that next great step. In the main galleries, mid-elementary aged pupils and on up will be encouraged to lean in, spend time and relish some cool art. Cohon says he wants curiosity to be stimulated. “I want children and teens to get excited,” he says.

The galleries officially open to the public May 8. The linchpin is the 2,300-year-old collection of funerary objects from an Egyptian tomb. The noblewoman Meretites, whose name means “beloved by her father,” lived around 350 B.C., about 1,000 years after King Tut. Not much is known about her, but her outer coffin, inner coffin, gold adornments and other objects remain intact for a Kansas City audience. The 7-foot-plus inner coffin is striking and seems to greet visitors. The Meretites collection, acquired by the Museum in 2007, includes an elaborately painted inner coffin, an outer coffin, a gilded mask and cartonnage, statuettes of Isis and Nephthys, and 305 ushebtis, or figurines intended as the noblewoman’s workers in her afterlife existence. The assemblage doesn’t include the actual mummy. However, the Nelson-Atkins galleries now features an Egyptian mummy that was acquired prior to the Meretites collection from Emory University, plus other works of art from Egyptian tombs.

Cohon says he wants to increase the number of younger visitors through the galleries. He figures the inner coffin will inspire viewers. The gold face and blue hair represents a chance for Meretites to be reborn every day like the sun and also to become semi-divine. Her coffin portrays her with the gold flesh and blue hair of the gods, whose hair was made of lapis lazuli.  Another prominent image is the dung beetle, seen in her hair and in the rib cage area. The dung beetle is another solar reference. Similar to the way the sun moves across the sky, a dung beetle pushes excrement across the desert. “There are more than 125 images of major and minor deities on the inner coffin,” says Cohon. “They weren’t taking any chances on seeking out divine protection and hopefully elevating her to a divine status. Coffins were virtual ‘reincarnation machines’ that were absolutely necessary for the deceased to enter the afterlife.”

I really feel like the appeal will be similar to my own youthful experience. If a child finds something interesting, gross or just bizarre – let’s face it, mummification is pretty weird – that child may be inclined to seek out more information. I did and this was before the invention of the Internet. Just a quick look around and there are hundreds, if not thousands of kid-friendly sites including National Geographic Kids. And here is something else to chew on, Egyptians’ contributions to subjects like math are recorded. I also think the ties to the Bible also help the links. If the Biblical numbers are taken literally the kings during the enslavement and rise to power of Joseph would be Senusret II (1894-1878 BC) and Senuseret III (1878-1841 BC), of the 12th Dynasty. Joseph’s career as an Egyptian governmental official would thus begin under Senuseret II and would continue into the reign of Senuseret III. After moving through the pyramid-like structure featuring the mummies, visitors move into more of the ancient galleries. Cohon says the room that includes a stone statue of the nobleman Ra-wer, as well as the over-life-size stone portrait of the great pharaoh Senuseret III.

“Early Egyptian art is the birthing room for all art,” Cohon says. “You can stand at any corner of the gallery and know that you are seeing quality representations of ancient art.” Other pieces have been in the Nelson staff’s possession, but have not been seen until now include a funereal painting or portrait that represents the change in looks after the Roman invasion of Egypt.  “We now have thematic unity in the ancient galleries. There is coherence. It’s going to be a great time to visit our Museum.”

Completion of the galleries continues the overall transformation of the Nelson-Atkins, which has included renovations to the original building, the Steven Holl-designed Bloch Building and newly installed European, American and American Indian galleries.

Kellie Houx

Kellie Houx is a writer and photographer. A graduate of Park University, she has 20 years of experience as a journalist. As a writer, wife and mom, she values education, arts, family and togetherness.

Leave a Reply