Oxford Ashmolean Museum reveals major new ancient Egyptian and Nubian gallery
Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum today lifted the lid on the second phase of its redevelopment. The 5 million pound revamp, supported by Lord Sainsbury’s Linbury Trust, displays the large and world-renowned Egypt and Nubia collections of the Ashmolean spanning 5000 years of human occupation of the region from prehistory to the Roman conquest.
The re-housing of 40,000 objects, with 2000 on display, breathes new light and airy life into the Egyptian artefacts which, with the British Museum collections as the benchmark, the Ashmolean has managed to make stand out from the crowd. The majesty of these objects is augmented by the work of Rick Mather architects, the new gallery design providing thinking space amongst the 2000 displayed objects, while still managing to immerse the viewer in an Egyptian setting. This immersion can be a little overwhelming at times, however, and the bright and open first gallery perhaps would have been a better template for the entire exhibition. Nevertheless, the sheer quality and splendour of many of the artefacts make up for some of the more crammed showcases – something, anyhow, that ultimately seems to befall every gallery with such a wealth of items from ancient Egypt competing for display.
A highlight of the exhibit is the massive and beautifully decorated Shrine of King Tahaka, the only freestanding ancient Egyptian building outside of the country, given as a parting gift from the Sudanese government. Furthermore, the Flinders-Petrie excavated statue of Nefertiti on loan from the British Museum makes a great addition to a particularly well-presented gallery that keeps giving as the viewer walks through it and changes perspective.
The galleries move in loosely chronological order, and contribute overall to the ‘Ancient World’ ground floor tour. Despite all the treasures on show, however, the jewel of the Egypt and Nubia gallery is actually a piece of contemporary art – Unwrapped: Story of a Child Mummy (along with its accompanying temporary exhibition in the Cast Gallery). Showcasing some of the latest techniques in medical science CT scanning, harnessed by someone with an inquisitive mind and great curatorial sensibilities, Unwrapped, by artist Angela Palmer, is every historian and sci-fi lover’s dream. The ethereal shape of a two year old child floats in 111 panels of glass, revealing the ‘internal architecture’ of the mummified body that lies next to it. The chance to glimpse upon something forbidden and sacred, a theme that has been set up throughout the rest of the galleries, really is a special moment to end a visit on.
The questions to the Director and Curator yet again centred on the tired notion of the provenance and right to the artefacts, as well as the treatment of the dead. However, the Ashmolean has demonstrated that in this day and age we should look past this tired complaint, and explore the artefacts as treasures in their own right without political and cultural baggage. Assistant Keeper Liam McNamara cited the millions of people who will pass through this reopened wing, hoping that they will continue the worship and pay tribute to the dead by reciting their names and prayers. In being brave, and pushing Egyptology into the future with challenging contemporary pieces, Ashmolean have begun a new and exciting age for public interaction with this much loved museum standard, Ancient Egypt. Words/Photo: Michael Philo © 2011 ArtLyst
The Egypt and Nubia gallery @ Ashmolean opens on Saturday 26 November 2011
Unwrapped: The Story of a Child Mummy @ Ashmolean Cast Gallery 26/11/2011 – 04/03/2012
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