Step into the Past; Major New Cummer Exhibit Gives Visitors a Glimpse of Life of Ancient Egyptians

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Byline: JUDY WELLS

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Massive, larger-than-life statues of long-dead pharaohs, exquisite jewelry and lavish amounts of gold, mummies and spooky-looking, animal-headed gods: This is the stuff we expect to find in blockbuster Egyptian exhibitions.

"Temples and Tombs: Treasures of Egyptian Art from the British Museum," which opens at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens on Friday, offers some of that, but more of what we usually miss -- the humanity of those Egyptians. Each of the 85 objects brings us closer to the people behind the monuments.

"Temples and Tombs" will bring benefits to the museum and the city beyond a mere show, just as the only other big Egyptian exhibit to visit Jacksonville did 20 years ago. "Ramesses II, The Pharaoh and His Times" opened the Prime Osborn Convention Center, drawing 400,000 visitors to the city's reincarnated train station and bringing acclaim, new members and name recognition to the Jacksonville Art Museum. "Temples and Tombs" will usher in a new space and new era, this time for the Cummer. The Minerva and Raymond K. Mason Gallery's 4,800 square feet of space brings the museum into the realm of institutions that can accommodate blockbuster exhibits, be they organized and mounted by the world's major depositories or by a regional one such as the Cummer.

Bringing in such an exhibit is a "bit risky" financially for a museum of the Cummer's size, so museum director Maarten van de Guchte and his staff will track attendance and store sales very carefully. If attendance reaches 60,000, they will be quite pleased.

It should. Carolyn Hill, executive director of Temple and Toms' previous stop, the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, said during its final weekend there that the exhibit "mesmerized Oklahoma audiences." She said it doubled sales and attendance, which was up to 40,000 people at that point in a city two-thirds Jacksonville's size.

The exhibit will look different at the Cummer than in Oklahoma City, but the objects are the same, conveying what was of primary importance to Egyptians 4,000 and more years ago. The show is divided into four different areas: The King and the Temple, Objects from the Lives of Artists and Nobles, Statues of Egyptians from Temples and Tombs and The Tomb, Death and the Afterlife.

The king, or pharaoh, was society's lynch pin, an omnipotent leader wielding life and death and acting as the sole intermediary between human and divine worlds. The gods maintained cosmic order and the king ensured them sustenance and residences on earth. Eliminate one or the other and chaos ensued because maat -- proper balance -- was key in the cosmos and in everyday life.

Temples represented a physical manifestation of this symbiosis, and each god usually had one or more. The Cummer's exhibit will echo the temples' form, with visitors entering through a pylon, or gateway, into a large space like an open courtyard, then moving through a multi-pillared hypostyle hall. It will darken and narrow into spaces like those in Egypt where only priests and the pharaoh could enter.

Priests managed the temples and daily rituals on behalf of the king and people, and cults frequently developed around the most important or popular gods. As depicted in the exhibit's Ptolemy I Offering to Hathor and Tutankhamun Presenting Offerings, gifts were bestowed, offered to the god and collected in treasuries. Larger temples were like individual cities: Priests and attendants lived there, security forces maintained order, craftsmen created adornments, workers kept stables and gardens and granaries and worshipers were cared for.

Each successive pharaoh continued or added to temple building, sometimes replacing past kings' cartouches, or names, with their own. Ramesses II, aware of this, had his cartouches carved so deeply that no subsequent ruler could usurp them for his own glory.

Visitors to the exhibit will be able to see normal cartouches on a pair of gold earrings, on the statue of Sety II seated, on portraits of Amenhotep III and Tiye and on the Lion of Amenhotep III re-inscribed for Tutankhamun. …