Brooklyn Museum Exhibition Reveals More Than the Sum of its Body Parts

Colossal Left Foot - Provenance unknown, Roman Period, 1st - 2nd century C.E. Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.I dropped my phone last week and it stopped working. As the daughter, sister, and wife of engineers, I generally regard most broken things as a challenge and I am quite often able to fix them, so I gathered tiny screwdrivers and a good light source and prised the handset open. Inside was a world mostly unknown to me, of miniature circuit boards, teeny candy-striped transistors, and delicate little welds. I identified the problem, but it was beyond repair, so I went out and bought another phone with a renewed respect for the intricacies inside the things we use every day.

Similar thinking lies behind the Body Parts: Ancient Egyptian Fragments and Amulets exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Arts truly breathtaking Ancient Egypt collection, which opened last month and runs until Oct. 2, 2011. Yekaterina Barbash, Assistant Curator of Egyptian Art at the Brooklyn Museum, explained to me that the idea behind gathering together 35 pieces of sculpture and funerary items a foot here, an eye there was that you can tell a lot about how something was made when its broken.

When I started working here at the museum a little less than two years ago. One of my first tasks was to explore the store room and familiarize myself with the collection, explains Barbash. As I was looking at the objects in storage I came across many beautiful fragments that had never been exhibited before. They caught my attention partly for their beauty and partly because when I looked at these fragments I began noticing details that one doesnt usually notice when looking at an entire sculpture – details that are often overlooked or not given enough importance. I thought that since I had this reaction, as an Egyptologist, museum visitors might appreciate seeing them.

Brooklyn’s Egypt Collection

The Brooklyn Museum has what my tour guide described as the third most significant collection of Egyptian artifacts in the U.S. the first and second being held at New Yorks Metropolitan Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Its a shame, in a way, that you have to hike up to the third floor to see it. I confess that Ive been to the Museum many times, and never bothered to discover the Egyptian treasures there. Brooklyn truly has a very impressive collection, and the Body Parts exhibition forms a tiny part of it, in a single space about the size of the average living room. In fact, the Body Parts show is in danger of being completely overshadowed by the rest of the collection if you havent visited it before the painted mummy cases are some of the most extraordinary Ive ever seen. But dont be put off. The whole idea is to narrow your view and encourage you to look a lot closer.

Many museums try to exhibit as many objects as possible, which is very good and positive for the student or scholar in that any scholar can come and see any object, muses Barbash. But on the other hand, such exhibitions can be overwhelming, both to visitors and to scholars. So with this exhibition, as well as the more permanent galleries, we hope that visitors will get a better impression of Egyptian art and culture and come away with a good memory of what theyve seen.

Reportedly from Karnak, Egypt, New Kingdom, 1281-1277 B.C. XIX Dynasty, Reign of Ramesses II. Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.For example, there is an eye cut from crystalline limestone, obsidian, and blue glass that was once part of an anthropoid (human-shaped) coffin similar to the Museums famous Cartonnage of Nespanetjerenpere, currently on view in the permanent installation. Next to it is the bare-bones metal setting for such an eye, from a different anthropoid coffin. The sheer meticulous skill that went into this one detail of an object that was going to be buried in the ground is certainly striking. The broken stone surfaces on a headless kneeling statue of Khaemwaset, a son of Ramses II, shows the effort that must have gone into making the rough smooth as skin.

I would hope that visitors would get a better understanding of how ancient Egyptian art was made, how it was crafted. Looking at fragments of sculptures allows us better to see how a statue was created, says Barbash. For example, theres a small wooden foot with tenon on one side and peg on the top. In a complete statue, the tenon would be attached to the leg and the peg on the base, and they would be covered in gesso and painted, so we wouldnt see those tenons and pegs. But here were lucky enough to get an insight into the work of the artist. This is what I love about Egyptology, we occasionally get glimpses into real life and how it functioned.

The Changing Body of Egyptian Art

But Barbash wants visitors to see more than simply the exposed nature of materials and craftsmanship. The details on display here are often signs of the subtle progressions in Egyptian art through the centuries spanned by that apparently consistent culture.

Unfortunately, Ive noticed that many visitors who view Egyptian art assume that, because of the very strict canon that we all know about, the art didnt changed through the ages of Ancient Egypt, Barbash explains. But in fact, when their attention is focused on certain details and their attention is taken by the different materials and workmanship, we begin to realize that Egyptian art could be quite different; the body types could be quite different, and those differences can be appreciated.

There are several feet on display, for example, that show a noticeable progression both in rendition and materials from stone, to wood. Egyptian feet used to be shown in almost cartoonish outline, with the big toe always towards you, giving figures a slightly comical pair of two left, or two right feet, depending on which way they were facing. But this changed over time and the most recent foot, from the Roman era, is made of wood and scarily realistic.

Egypt, New Kingdom or later, 1539-30 B.C. Obsidian, crystalline limestone, blue glass. Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.Another, rather more complex notion that Barbash would like to communicate is the tension that existed in Ancient Egyptian mythology between the importance placed on the wholeness of the human body, and the fact that each body part had a separate deity and significance attached to it.

On the one hand the Egyptians clearly valued the significance of keeping the body intact, so in the religious and mortuary context, you have the whole thing of mummification and burial practices, where the Egyptians did everything to keep the body the way it is, explains Barbash.

But at the same time, we know that Egyptian mortuary texts talk about each part of the body separately, and associate it with a different deity. This is expressed in the hieroglyphs, which deconstruct the body in a mythological, semiotic way. In this ancient culture, a body of text was less metaphorical than it is in ours. Your name, made up of sacred symbolic parts, was as much you as your body, and had to be protected and revered. This is represented in the philosophy and religion of the entirety of Ancient Egypt, says Barbash. For Ancient Egyptians, there was a real connection between text and image. Hieroglyphs were believed to be gifts from the gods.

Barbash is working next on what she calls a slight reinstallation of the permanent Ancient Egypt collection. She intends to introduce a series of mummy bandages that contain texts and vignettes from the Book of the Dead. I think theyre adorable, says Barbash, proving once again that archaeologists and curators of the Ancient World typically have more enthusiasm for what they do than a whole office block of accountants. The vignettes are really beautifully done, but since theyre rather small, theyre cute. Theyre also very interesting from the scholarly point of view, because although most museums do have inscribed and decorated mummy bandages, most dont display them. So I think this will be a great opportunity to let the public and Egyptology scholars know about them.

The Brooklyn Museum continues to shine as an example of an institution where there is constant, thoughtful, intelligent motion going on behind the scenes that benefits the visitor with the endless series of story slants that is necessary to do justice to a grand old civilization.

Body Parts: Ancient Egyptian Fragments and Amulets is at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Thursday 19 November 2009 to Sunday 2 October 2011.