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Egyptian Art

Egyptian

The Museum's collection of ancient Egyptian art consists of approximately twenty-six thousand objects of artistic, historical, and cultural importance, dating from the Paleolithic to the Roman period (ca. 300,000 B.C.A.D. 4th century). More than half of the collection is derived from the Museum's thirty-five years of archaeological work in Egypt, initiated in 1906 in response to increasing Western interest in the culture of ancient Egypt.

What's On View

Virtually the entire collection is on display in the Lila Acheson Wallace Galleries of Egyptian Art, with objects arranged chronologically over thirty-nine rooms. Overall, the holdings reflect the aesthetic values, history, religious beliefs, and daily life of the ancient Egyptians over the entire course of their great civilization. The collection is particularly well known for the Old Kingdom mastaba (offering chapel) of Perneb (ca. 2450 B.C.); a set of Middle Kingdom wooden models from the tomb of Meketre at Thebes (ca. 1990 B.C.); jewelry of Princess Sit-hathor-yunet of Dynasty 12 (ca. 1897–1797 B.C.); royal portrait sculpture of Dynasty 12 (ca. 1991–1783 B.C.); and statuary of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut of Dynasty 18 (ca. 1473–1458 B.C.). The department also exhibits its invaluable collection of watercolor facsimiles of Theban tomb paintings, most of which are copies produced between 1907 and 1937 by members of the Graphic Section of the Museum's Egyptian Expedition.

One of the most popular destinations in the Egyptian galleries is the Temple of Dendur in The Sackler Wing. Built about 15 B.C. by the Roman emperor Augustus, who had succeeded Cleopatra VII, the last of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, the temple was dedicated to the great goddess Isis and to two sons of a local Nubian ruler who had aided the Romans in their wars with the queen of Meroe to the south. Located in Lower Nubia, about fifty miles south of modern Aswan, the temple was dismantled to save it from the rising waters of Lake Nasser after the construction of the Aswan High Dam. It was presented to the United States as a gift from the Egyptian government in recognition of the American contribution to the international campaign to save the ancient Nubian monuments.

History of the Department

The Department of Egyptian Art was established in 1906 to oversee the Museum's already sizable collection of art from ancient Egypt. The collection had been growing since 1874 thanks to individual gifts from benefactors and acquisition of private collections (such as the Drexel Collection in 1889, the Farman Collection in 1904, and the Ward Collection in 1905), as well as through yearly subscriptions, from 1895 onward, to the Egypt Exploration Fund, a British organization that conducted archaeological excavations in Egypt and donated a share of its finds to subscribing institutions.

Also in 1906, the Museum's Board of Trustees voted to establish an Egyptian Expedition to conduct archaeological excavations at several sites along the Nile. Instrumental in this decision was J. Pierpont Morgan, the Museum's president, who visited the expedition periodically until his death in 1913. At the time, the Egyptian government (through the Egyptian Antiquities Service) was granting foreign institutions the right to excavate with the understanding that the resulting finds would be divided evenly between the excavators and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The Metropolitan Museum was granted concessions for the Middle Kingdom royal cemeteries of Lisht; the Late Dynastic Period temple of Hibis at Kharga Oasis in the western desert; the New Kingdom royal palace at Malqata; and the Middle and New Kingdom cemeteries and temples of Deir el-Bahri in the Theban necropolis opposite modern Luxor. The Egyptian Antiquities Service subsequently granted access to other sites as well, among them the important Predynastic cemetery of Hierakonpolis in southern Egypt.

Between 1906 and 1935, the Metropolitan Museum's Egyptian Expedition conducted fourteen seasons of excavations at Lisht. The site includes the Middle Kingdom pyramid complexes of Amenemhat I, the first king of Dynasty 12, and of his son, Senwosret I; a cemetery of officials from Dynasties 12 and 13; and an important Middle Kingdom settlement site. The early excavation teams were led by noted American Egyptologist Albert M. Lythgoe, the first curator of the Department of Egyptian Art. Lythgoe was assisted by his American colleague, Ambrose Lansing, and by Arthur C. Mace, a British Egyptologist. Also at Lisht was Herbert E. Winlock, a young American who was just beginning his career in Egyptology. Among the most important finds from the site are a ritual figure of wood (ca. 1929–1878 B.C.), one of a pair, the second of which is in Cairo; and burial equipment from the tomb of the Lady Senebtisi. It was while working with Mace in this tomb that Winlock developed the careful archaeological methods that made him one of the greatest excavators in the field of Egyptology.

In 1911, after several seasons at Lisht, Herbert Winlock became the primary director of fieldwork at Thebes. He later succeeded Lythgoe as the head of the Department of Egyptian Art, and eventually served as director of the Museum. Winlock conducted excavations in the Dynasty 18 mud-brick palace of Amenhotep III at Malqata, near the southern end of the vast Theban necropolis, but his principal work was done at the temples and cemeteries in the area of Deir el-Bahri. There, in 1920, he discovered a small, untouched chamber in the tomb of the early Middle Kingdom chancellor Meketre (ca. 1990 B.C.). The chamber contained a set of twenty-four painted wooden models of boats, gardens, offering figures, and scenes of food production that are more detailed than any found before or since. These models are among the most prized possessions of the collections at the Met and at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Winlock also discovered hundreds of fragments of the smashed statues that had once embellished the funerary temple of Hatshepsut, the great female pharaoh who ruled during Dynasty 18 (ca. 1473–1458 B.C.). Painstakingly reassembled, these statues are some of the great masterpieces now to be found in New York and Cairo.

Over the years the Department of Egyptian Art has been able to acquire, through purchase and bequest, a number of important private collections, including those of Rev. Chauncey Murch (1910), Theodore M. Davis (1915), J. Pierpont Morgan (1917), the Earl of Carnarvon (1926), and Albert Gallatin (1966). Significant gifts have also come from collectors such as Norbert Schimmel (1985), and major purchases have been made possible by benefactors, including Darius Ogden Mills, Helen Miller Gould, Edward S. Harkness, Jacob S. Rogers, and Lila Acheson Wallace, who also funded the reinstallation of the Egyptian galleries that was completed in 1982.

Ongoing Research

In addition to interpreting and caring for the permanent collection of ancient Egyptian art, the staff of the Department of Egyptian Art continues to excavate at the Museum's concessions in Egypt.

View highlights

Summer Sketching—Egyptian Art (Ages 11–18)
July 21, 2014
Registration is now closed for this program.
Art with a Purpose: The Ancient World
August 1, 2014
Fee: $45 (includes lunch)
Decoding Ancient Egyptian Figures
August 2, 2014
Free with Museum admission, though tickets are required

Last updated: Thursday, July 10