The Quest for Immortality
Betsy Bryan, chair of the Johns Hopkins University Department of Near Eastern Studies, is the guest curator of The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt, on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., from June 30 through Oct. 14.
The Quest for Immortality is the largest selection of antiquities ever loaned by the Egyptian government for exhibition in North America. Bigger than the blockbuster Tutankhamun exhibit of Egyptian artifacts that toured the United States and drew mammoth crowds in the 1970s, the new exhibit of 115 artifacts is scheduled to embark on a five-year tour of the United States and Canada after its run at the National Gallery.
Different from previous exhibits of artifacts loaned by Egypt, The Quest for Immortality focuses on the Egyptians' concept of the afterlife. It includes objects that have never been on public display and many that have never left Egypt. Bryan hopes the funerary artifacts and the stories behind them will demystify this ancient culture.
"Most people's reaction to Egyptian culture is, 'Isn't that strange?' And they're right; it is," says Bryan, the Alexander Badawy Professor of Egyptian Art and Archaeology at Johns Hopkins. "But my intention as a teacher is to show that the ancient Egyptians were human beings just like us. This exhibit is a great opportunity to do that."
Bryan's involvement began a year ago when she was asked to advise the National Gallery about an exhibit conceived by Erik Hornung, a Swiss Egyptologist who was working with United Exhibits Group in Denmark. The group presented the idea to the National Gallery, where officials were very excited about the concept, Bryan says. Soon Bryan and two members of the National Gallery staff were traveling to Egypt to select pieces from collections at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Luxor Museum and sites near Tanis and Deir el-Bahari for the display.
Bryan's role in The Quest for Immortality led to the participation of her graduate students and university photographer Jay VanRensselaer. As the result of a seminar last fall, the students, most of whom participated in Bryan's annual winter dig at the Temple of Karnak in Egypt, contributed object entries for the 256-page catalog edited by Bryan and Hornung to accompany the exhibit. The catalog, with essays by Bryan and Hornung, also features photos by VanRensselaer, who has photographed the annual dig for several years. This year, he contributed to The Quest for Immortality by spending part of his time in Egypt shooting a number of the artifacts. Some 30 images, which Bryan considers "stunning," appear in the catalog.
Graduate students Elaine Sullivan, Elizabeth Waraksa, Yasmin El Shazly and Fatma Ismail wrote entries for the catalog, Tammy Krygier prepared the catalog's index and glossary, and Kathlyn Cooney wrote a promotional brochure and descriptive wall texts for the exhibit.
Other smaller Egyptian exhibits have been on display in the United States, including artifacts from Ramses II in the mid-1980s and two Tutankhamun exhibits, both of which were at the National Gallery. The first, Tutankhamun Treasures in 1961, featured 34 small objects; the second, Treasures of Tutankhamun, included 55 objects and drew more than 835,000 visitors during 1976-77. Besides more than doubling the number of artifacts previously displayed, the new exhibit will delve deeply into their meanings and uses.
"What this show is doing is trying to explain the objects, shedding light on Egyptian afterlife beliefs," Bryan says. "We're trying to explain what they thought would happen to them."
To speak with Betsy Bryan, contact Amy Cowles at 410- 516-7160. For general information about The Quest for Immortality, call the National Gallery of Art at 202-737-4215 or go to www.nga.gov/press/2002/exhibitions/egypt/index.htm. Bryan will present a lecture based on the exhibit from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15, in the large auditorium of the Gallery's East Building.
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