The Selling of Ancient Egypt

by Rachel P. Kreiter


Buried within Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated to artwork from the four-hundred-year period of Egyptian history between roughly 2000 and 1600 BCE, is a squat sky-blue hippo figurine whose body is inscribed with lilies. This is William the Hippo. William is made of faience, a self-glazing ceramic-like compound out of which the ancient Egyptians crafted beads, dishes, amulets, inlays, and goblets throughout their history, from about 3000 to 30 BCE. This figurine is arguably the best-known piece of faience in the world, if not the best-known piece of Egyptian art.

William encapsulates ancient Egyptian beliefs as well as the essence of Egypt’s brand appeal: He’s the Met’s “mascot,” marketed to children since at least 1936. You can buy him as an eraser, a reproduction, a stuffed animal, a magnet, or a pair of earbuds. With such a commercial presence you’d think the actual show would flog William for all he’s worth, which I daresay is a lot if they’re still making staplers out of him. Yet if you look for William in Ancient Egypt Transformed you’ll probably never find him, the poor thing: He’s stuffed into a case with several other faience hippos. Go ahead, look for him. I’ll wait.

William’s limbs are reconstructions. The color is a subtle mismatch, with discordant finishes — the legs matte to the torso’s glossiness. One surviving leg provides another obvious contrast, with articulated toe joints absent on the reconstruction. Before he was placed in the tomb of Senbi around 1900 BCE, William’s legs were broken. It was ritualistic, Egyptologists think — hippos were dangerous in Egypt, a chaotic disruptor to life on the Nile. Putting a hippo in the tomb was apotropaic, but to disarm his destructive potential toward the tomb owner, William had to be physically rendered harmless. That William’s legs are purposefully broken is evidence that the Egyptians performed the act of neutralizing chaos, ensuring that life will continue, even in death.

To exclude William’s nickname from the label, to bury him so deeply within this exhibition, is testament to a few truths about Ancient Egypt Transformed which could stand as a whole for truths about how Egyptologists deal with, and how the general public sees, ancient Egypt. To exclude the reputation — the legacy — of William the Hippo from an exhibition about the visual material of the Middle Kingdom is to deny a truth about Egyptian art itself: It’s as much a scholarly artifact as it is a cultural product. The curatorial choices evidence a masterful understanding of the history of ancient Egypt and its culture; Ancient Egypt Transformed is comprehensive to a fault, even devoting a section of the show to the museum’s extensive, century-long archaeological mission in Egypt with a to-scale model of a Middle Kingdom pyramid enclosure. The exhibition’s marketing, branding, and educational initiatives function as a separate entity, driving home how valuable a commercial property ancient Egypt can be. What’s weird is how these two seemingly disparate programs alternately push apart and work together within the show.

A couple of days after I saw Ancient Egypt Transformed, I found myself in the Gagosian on 21st Street, in white rooms with tall ceilings looking at Jeff Koons’ Gazing Ball Paintings. These are reproductions of painting’s greatest hits from the art historical canon, each with the addition of a blue gazing ball that sticks out from the canvas. At best — most charitably — the coherence of the full body of work, the collection of eras in a single space, all with a blue ball added, is the thing that made that installation successful; each room was an exercise in overwhelming the audience with the familiar. Perhaps there’s an intellectual conceit in forcing the viewer to see their reflection in the ball within these paintings, or perhaps a creative validity in the uniformity of the reproductions, which hung without frames, each roughly (though not exactly) the same size, the same dimensions. Such varied art, so many contexts — El Greco, The Raft of the Medusa, that kind of thing — and all of them stripped away.

I bring this up not because I want to talk about that show in particular, but rather, to get at the fallacy in declaring that something isn’t actually art. The only conversation you can really have about Jeff Koons is whether his work is good or not — but what he does is undeniably art. Over dinner a few hours later, the conversation turned to 3D-printed rocks installed in a park, which my friend dismissed as “not art.” You don’t have to like the rocks or the gazing ball reproductions, or really anything, but you can’t deny their transformative character — which conceptually, and legally, makes them “art.” Maybe it’s art if you’re sitting there discussing it; maybe that should be the measure. Instead of whether or not it is, the best argument to have about art, assuming you already know what it ‘means,’ is whether or not it’s good.

A major complication in the museum display of ancient Egyptian art — any ancient art — is that good or bad is beside the point. Egyptologists are not sure if the ancient Egyptians made art at all. They had no word for it, only a term more closely akin to our definition of “craft.” The objects we call “Egyptian art” were produced by a culture whose goal in making beautiful things was so fundamentally different than ours that to review it as if the art is good or bad — as New York Times art critic Holland Cotter did upon the show’s opening, even as he noted the lack of an Egyptian term for “art” — doesn’t serve the purpose of creating meaning for the artwork itself.

Some Egyptian objects seem more carefully carved, are better articulated, or more richly detailed than others. Yet careful or detailed work doesn’t equate to “good” in modern Western practice by any means. Robert Rauschenberg’s white monochromes aren’t detailed in the slightest; closer to Egypt, Matthew Barney’s Djed installations are basically piles of melted garbage, neither careful nor attractive. These are things that are broadly considered “good,” though not everyone would agree. What makes them successful as artworks has nothing to do with whether they look appealing and everything to do with context: the times and places in which they were made, the historical works they draw upon, the works they would later inspire.

How do you display Egyptian art if you can’t quite, and perhaps shouldn’t, judge its quality on a twenty-first-century metric? Here’s a bridge between ancient and contemporary art: ancient art can also be evaluated by the time and place of its making, historical antecedents, and artistic successors. This first criteria can be filled in, broadly, like this: The point of making these things in Egypt, beside resource control and status signification, was to mimic the act of creation, to shape raw matter into purpose and meaning, to cause something to appear from nothing, as if by the same magic that created the world. The quality of the artwork doesn’t negate the transformative process inherent in making Egyptian art.

The traditional view of Egyptian history dictates that three major epochs of united, stable government under a single ruler, called kingdoms, were each disrupted by “intermediate periods” when the country became fragmented and, concurrently, the quality of the art declined. This is a modern construction in the strictest sense of that concept. Though by Greco-Roman times a priest named Manetho had recorded a division of Egyptian history into dynasties, surely no one woke up the day Nebhepetre Mentuhotep took the throne and determined that art could be good again. Ancient Egypt Transformed concerns material produced at that juncture and up until the political stability of Egypt collapsed again to usher in what we call the Second Intermediate Period.

If a major art museum is going to mount the very first exhibition dedicated to masterworks of the Middle Kingdom of ancient Egypt, there’d better be a unifying principle through which visitors can come to understand what makes this period more unique or special than what’s on display literally downstairs in the Met’s permanent Egyptian galleries. That principle is there in the exhibition’s title participle. Arguably, it’s the transformative character of the work that justifies such a large exhibition dedicated to a single period. With the surety of hindsight, this exhibition argues that the Middle Kingdom was when the Egyptians stopped fucking around and started making art. Middle Kingdom work is skilled and accomplished, and the Metropolitan Museum has a major stake in codifying that position. Their first Egyptian excavation concession in 1906, concurrent with the establishment of the Egyptian department, was at the Middle Kingdom site of Lisht, around forty miles south of modern Cairo and the ancient capital of Memphis. The Met continues digging there nearly a century later, despite the fact that the partition system through which the museum was able to easily take home antiquities ended long ago. Before that, though, the museum was able to acquire some fantastic stuff. The ne plus ultra of Middle Kingdom tomb models, for example, is the cache from the tomb of Meketre, now split between Cairo and the Met, which excavated that burial in 1920. Some of those models appear in Ancient Egypt Transformed, as do some relief blocks from the Amenemhet I pyramid complex. In the permanent collection downstairs, these landmark collections are each housed in their own galleries.

The Met’s collection of Egyptian artworks is so huge and so complete that it could claim to have a special relationship with any period. It might as well say it has the American monopoly on complete Roman Nubian temples — it’s true! It’s also true that the Middle Kingdom has defied some of the branding given to the Old and New Kingdoms. In the former you have the “Pyramid age” and in the latter, celebrity royals like Nefertiti and Tutankhamun. Alongside sphinxes and biblical narratives, these are the most visible and exciting aspects of ancient Egypt to modern Western consumers. Presidential candidates wouldn’t be sounding off about these things if they weren’t. (Never mind that the pyramid age proper continued into the Middle Kingdom; these later pyramid complexes are no longer picturesque, long deteriorated. They’re not wonders of the world, exactly.) People will not stop asking me if the Giza pyramids were used to store grain. Meanwhile, the modern Western world wouldn’t keep making (sometimes successful) big-budget screen epics about Egypt if those weren’t, you know, marketable.

Is the Middle Kingdom marketable? The Met is trying to make it so. The exit gift shop, for example, was selling poster collaborations with Banquet Atelier and Workshop, a “Vancouver-based studio engaged in creating quality goods celebrating the natural world and the animals that inhabit it.” My favorite creatures inhabiting the natural world have always been Sobek, the crocodile-headed humanoid god, and Osiris, the former king of Egypt who was hacked up into little pieces and reformed as a mummy to stand or sit, magically bandaged so that his hands just barely clutch a crook and flail, in judgement of the deceased. These deities, and others, appear on a poster that you can buy for seventy bucks. It says, in huge block letters across the bottom, EGYPTOLOGY. Egyptology is fun, but if you are the sort of person who would buy a poster that says EGYPTOLOGY on it, you’re part of the problem. This poster and others were on sale alongside scholarly volumes like Dieter Arnold’s heavy tome The Pyramid Complex of Amenemhet I at Lisht, a substantive resource for Egyptologists, archaeologists, and architectural historians, but which is useless to almost anyone who would go see Ancient Egypt Transformed. The shelf of William merchandise — knick-knacks, note cards — has broader appeal and is priced more reasonably.

It’s not that selling to multiple demographics is in itself a bad thing; the Met is “encyclopedic” in multiple senses. It’s that the catch-all nature of the gift shop begs the question of who is this exhibition is for. Papyrus and sherds, some scrawled in hieratic, the cursive of glyphs, appear throughout the show. The Middle Kingdom was a literary renaissance in ancient Egypt, and these texts are crucial to the aesthetic and cultural character of that period. They don’t look like much, though, and no layperson can read them. Translations are present but the objects themselves take up considerable real estate in the exhibition space. What do these ancient documents have to do with art? It’s a nod to Egyptology, wherein artwork is often no more than a conveyance for, or visual example of, written texts. Within the show, it’s difficult to imagine these objects competing with statue portraits of the king Senwosret III, whose grave, drawn features are shockingly distinct from the typically idealized images of Egyptian kings, or the little tomb model of a cow birthing a calf on loan from the Royal Ontario Museum. For an art museum audience, works like these are far clearer about how transformation played a part in Middle Kingdom aesthetics.

Until recently, an exhibition downstairs called Kongo: Power and Majesty concerned the aftermath of the Portuguese encounter with the Kongo peoples in the fifteenth century, which led to the colonial devastation that attended the trade networks Western culture grew to thrive on, serving up people, sugar, works of art. Like was shown with like in Kongo — power figures called minkisi grouped together, carved elephant tusks called oliphants grouped together, Christian crosses grouped together. Ancient Egypt Transformed, in contrast, begins with any and all objects dealing with the king, then moves on to royal women, elite officials, foreign interconnections, and the afterlife and its practices. Toward the end of the show you’ll run into three different model boats. Initially I felt there was no need for three model boats in a show that feels this packed. Increasingly I can’t help but envision a Middle Kingdom show where there are even more model boats, as many as possible, “good” ones and “bad” ones, in varying sizes, all displayed in a herringbone pattern like the little armies of minkisi in Kongo.

The art of the Middle Kingdom could be distilled into a limited number of defining canonical types of work: the model boats; the rectangular wooden coffins with bands of colorful inscriptions and a pair of painted eyes where the mummy’s head lay so the deceased could look out; the squatting block statues of cloaked elites we sometimes call Würfelhocker; limestone funerary stelae; so-called “magic wands” of ivory incised with bizarre creatures; pristine and precious jewelry. And faience hippos, for sure.

The variation in these corpora is thrilling, and would speak to how within a supposedly uniform culture under an autocratic divine king there are glimpses of humanity in Egyptian art. It’s in looking at these objects together that the show’s raison d’etre would be most undeniably evident. I don’t know if it’s truer to guess that we simply have more surviving Middle Kingdom works than earlier material, or if decorum loosened just enough in this period, but if there is a transformation in Egyptian artwork at this time, maybe it’s the explosion in artistic decision-making that leads to such a wonderfully bizarre body of work. Some of the best objects in the show are those a Romanist might sniff at as “provincial” — an arm too long here and there, reaching uncomfortably across the gap between two bodies or up into the above register on a stela. Without imputing sentiment to long-dead nobodies, it’s possible to drink in the variation in the materials produced by a society in which order, consistency, and stability were religious doctrine. (Or so we think.) The value of Egyptian artwork is in its texture, not the tactile but the conceptual kind, in its many interruptions and deliberate breaks.

Which brings us back to William the Hippo, or rather, William’s broken legs. As I was sifting through the stack of leaflets and papers I brought back from the Met, I picked up the Family Guide: Pharaohs, Sphinxes, and Hippos. William, in line art, is turquoise against a yellow cover. Inside, under a picture of the figurine, the text tells kids about the lotuses on William’s body as symbols of rebirth. “Look closely,” the guide says, “how are these hippos the same or different from each other?” (It would be so satisfying if this question were followed with a second: “What does it mean that the Egyptians made the same thing over and over, each time subtly different?”) The name “William” is never mentioned. There are many surviving faience hippos in this world, and a few in this show. But there’s only one William, and it’s obvious without even mentioning his name that he’s the hippo in question. Given the William merchandise in the gift shop, you could roll your eyes at how the teachable moment of seeing a pod of faience hippos is transformed into native advertising.

The best thing about ancient Egypt is its frustrating existence in two worlds, the academic and the mainstream, which fuel and contradict each other, deny and encourage. The real test of this show will be not how good it was according to critics, but rather, whether something from the Middle Kingdom is able to transcend its scholarly trappings to be sold on a mug.

Photo of William the Hippo by The Met