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Egyptian Art Exhibit Opens in New York - 2003-04-23

More than 5,000 years of Egyptian art and artifacts are on display in New York City. The collection is the pride and joy of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, known around the world for its extensive holdings of Egyptian antiquities.

The Brooklyn Museum of Art began collecting ancient Egyptian materials at the beginning of the 20th century. Since then, it has amassed thousands of Egyptian artifacts and, says Museum Director Arnold Lehman, become the benchmark against which historians measure Egyptian art. "When people talk about special, high quality Egyptian art, they always refer to it as Brooklyn quality," he said.

Mr. Lehman says there is rarely an exhibition of Egyptian art that doesn't feature work on loan from the museum's vast holdings.

But until the museum began converting offices and storage areas into new exhibition space about 10 years ago, only about 500 of the more than 4,000 pieces it houses had ever been on display at any one time.

Mr. Lehman says the reconstruction paved the way for the exhibit "Egypt Reborn: Art for Eternity", featuring more than 1,000 art pieces and artifacts dating from around 4,000 BC, to the 18th dynasty reign of King Amunhotep in 1,350 AD. "We simply didn't have space to show all of this material," said Arnold Lehman. "So we've been looking for this opportunity. The opening of these new galleries gives the visitor the entire breadth of this astounding cultural achievement in Egypt."

Ironically, ancient Egyptians had no word for art, as exhibition curator James Romano explains. Images and objects were designed to convey information, not reproduce reality. As a result, Mr. Romano says, many people wrongly perceive Egyptian art as conservative and static. "Egyptian art is not conservative," he said. "It meant to do certain things. An Egyptian sculpture was meant to be a place where the soul lived. A place that accepted offerings. It wasn't to be admired. Once they figured out a formula that worked best, they kept it. Because it worked."

The exhibition features several interactive kiosks, computers with touch-sensitive screens that explain, for example, the significance of the distinctive poses characteristic of Egyptian figures.

Mr. Romano says some of the smaller pieces in the exhibition, although easily overlooked, best demonstrate the combination of utility and spirituality. "In one case, there's a little dog, carved from stone," explained Mr. Romano. "It is hardly a show stopper, but a show is not just masterpieces. You have to address the humanity of the people that created these things. The idea that there was an Egyptian who so loved his dog that he had an image made of him and placed in his tomb, to be with him throughout eternity, is very touching. Dog lovers will understand that emotion."

Other small sculptures include two hippopotami, on display legless and upside down. Mr. Romano says the ancient Egyptians broke off the legs before putting the figures in the tombs, to keep them from running around the tomb in the afterlife. He says restorers put on new legs, which the staff at the Museum removed for the sake of historical accuracy.

The statues, carvings, jewelry, and coffins in the exhibit will be familiar to many visitors because of the pervasiveness and popularity of Egyptian iconography. But, says curator James Romano, that familiarity is misleading. "There's also something impenetrable about Egyptian art," he said. "It's deceptive. You think you can understand it, you think you can approach it, get to the root, but I challenge any of your listeners to come here, and to stare into the face of one of these statues. He'll let you only so far into his soul. She'll tell you only so much about herself. But then this inscrutable withdrawal into the realm of the spiritual takes over."

Mr. Romano hopes that the exhibition will have as profound an effect on visitors as one of the pieces in it the stone Head from a Female Sphinx, dating from 1,850 BC had on him as a student. "I was walking through the galleries and no one was here," reminisced Mr. Romano. "I mean, no one. This was over 30 years ago. Anyway, I came across that head. I was mesmerized. I stood in front of it. In my mind, it was not stone. It was flesh. And that's when I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to understand the technical skill, the mentality, and above all the will to make such an image. That love affair has lasted."

"Egypt Reborn: Art for Eternity" fills a space in the museum the size of two city blocks, and will do so indefinitely. The exhibition is permanent.