The Department of Egyptian Art was established in 1906 to oversee The Metropolitan Museum of Art's ancient Egyptian collection, which had been growing since 1874. Today, after more than a century of collecting and excavating, the collection has become one of the finest and most comprehensive in the world.
In 1906, the Museum began an excavation program in Egypt that continued for 30 years and brought innumerable pieces of great artistic, historical, and cultural importance into the collection. Because of this work in Egypt, the Museum's collection is particularly rich in both the royal and private art of the Middle (ca. 2040–1640 B.C.E.) and early New Kingdoms (ca. 1640–1450 B.C.E.) and in the funerary art of the Third Intermediate and Late Periods (ca. 1070–332 B.C.E.).
Under an agreement with the Egyptian Government, the Metropolitan Museum originally was granted permission to excavate at three sites—Lisht, the cemetery of the Middle Kingdom capital, located in the pyramid field just south of Cairo; el-Kharga Oasis, the location of the temple of Hibis; and in western Thebes, the temple and cemetery site opposite Luxor, the seat of worship of the god Amon and religious (and, at times, also political) capital of Egypt—with the understanding that the materials discovered there would be divided equally between the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the Metropolitan Museum. Subsequently, Egypt granted access to other sites as well.
Between 1906 and 1935, the Metropolitan Museum conducted 14 seasons of excavations at Lisht. The excavation teams at Lisht were led by the noted Egyptologists Albert M. Lythgoe, the first curator of the Museum's newly formed Department of Egyptian Art; Arthur C. Mace, who had worked with W. M. Flinders Petrie and George Reisner and was to assist Howard Carter in the Tomb of Tutankhamun; and Ambrose Lansing, a student of Leipzig University professor Georg Steindorff. In addition to the innumerable important finds resulting from the extensive excavations in Lisht's two pyramids—one of Amenemhat I, the first king of the 12th Dynasty (ca. 1991–1962 B.C.E.), and the other of his son and successor Senwosret I (ca. 1971–1926 B.C.E.)—the Museum team's study of the settlement around these monuments helped to establish the historical foundation of the Middle Kingdom and contributed to the understanding of the daily life of its citizens, the achievements of its artists, and its commercial ties with other lands. At Thebes, Herbert E. Winlock discovered an untouched chamber in the tomb of the Treasurer Meketre (ca. 1990 B.C.E.) with 24 pristinely preserved models of painted wood, showing Meketre voyaging in Nile boats and supervising a cattle count, together with three-dimensional representations of his garden, stable, workshops, and kitchen. Other spectacular finds at Thebes comprised hundreds of fragments from smashed statues of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut (ca. 1473–1458 B.C.E.) in an ancient quarry near her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri. Reassembled by Museum conservators, the statues today are masterpieces in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
The first phase of the Museum's work in Egypt came to an end in 1937, to recommence at Lisht in 1984. Since 1971, other excavations have also taken place at Memphis (which was the capital of the Old Kingdom and a prominent city until the Roman Period), the Senenmut Tombs, and the Tomb of the Three Wives of
Thutmose III. Currently, the Metropolitan Museum continues excavations at Lisht and explores the pyramid precinct of Senwosret III (ca. 1878–1841 B.C.E.) at Dahshur. In 2008, work was reinitiated at the site of Malqata, a palace city built in western Thebes for the jubilee celebrations of Amenhotep III (ca. 1391–1353 B.C.E.), where the Museum excavated from 1910 to 1920.
Today the collection of the Department of Egyptian Art comprises an estimated 24,000 objects, dating from 3,000 B.C.E. to 400 C.E.—from prehistoric Egypt through the Byzantine occupation during the reign of Emperor Justinian. Overall, the artistic and archaeological works in the collection reflect the history, daily life, and religious beliefs and aesthetic values of the ancient Egyptians throughout their great civilization. Virtually all of the objects in the collection are on view.
In 1996, the Museum reinstalled more than 900 objects from its collection of art from the Amarna Period (ca. 1353–1336 B.C.E.) and the Post-Amarna Period (ca. 1336–1295 B.C.E.) in newly designed gallery spaces. Reliefs, sculpture, painting, and minor arts of this era are uncommonly rich in artistic invention, breaking with canonical traditions that had endured in Egyptian art for more than 1700 years.
Since 2002, galleries housing Predynastic and Early Dynastic art, the Old Kingdom tombs of Perneb and Raemkai, and the art of Roman Egypt were reconceived to provide a new gateway to the Museum's Egyptian collection. New construction in 2008 centered on the reinstallation of the statuary of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut and royal portrait sculpture of Dynasty 12 and 13, which among the greatest masterpieces of portraiture from the ancient world. The presentation of the Museum's fine collection of Middle Kingdom royal jewelry was also redesigned at this time.
A highlight of the collection is the Temple of Dendur in The Sackler Wing, an Egyptian monument built (ca. 15 B.C.E.) by the Emperor Augustus, who succeeded the famous Cleopatra VII in ruling Egypt and Lower Nubia. 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 (especially the rock temples of Abu Simbel), the Dendur Temple has been reassembled as it appeared on the banks of the Nile, in a modern simulation of the entire site, with a reflecting pool representing the Nile, a terrace, a court, foundation walls, and a hillside of stone.