Egyptians loved their coffins.
“It was more expensive than a house,” said Dr. Peter Lacovara, an expert on Egyptian culture. “But it was your house forever.”
It’s now open house for the coffin of mummy Ankhefenmut, longtime resident of the Albany Institute of History & Art. The museum’s newest exhibit, GE Presents: The Mystery of the Albany Mummies, opens today and features the reunification of the Egyptian priest and sculptor’s final resting place.
GE Presents: The Mystery of the Albany Mummies
WHERE: Albany Institute of History & Art, 125 Washington Ave.
WHEN: Today through June 8
HOW MUCH: Adults, $10; seniors and students, $8; children 6-12, $6; children under 6, free.
MORE INFO: www.albanyinstitute.org
The major exhibition, which features 200 objects and includes pieces never before shown on U.S. soil, will run through June 8.
Ankhefenmut has had a big year. The ancient Egyptian made headlines in March when museum officials announced the mummy — long believed a female — was actually a male.
He has been with the museum since 1909, when institute trustee Samuel Brown bought two mummies from the Cairo Museum for his home museum.
Ankhefenmut was purchased with the bottom section of his coffin. The other wooden components — an ornate “mummy board” that covered the wrapped corpse and an equally ornate top lid — ended up with the British Museum in London and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, respectively. Both pieces have been loaned to Albany for the “Mystery” exhibit.
Albany’s second mummy, who is partially unwrapped and has never been identified, will also be part of the show.
Mistress of dread
Guest curator Lacovara, senior curator of Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta, expects people will love other antiquities on display. One is
a 400-pound statue of the fearsome goddess Sekhmet, shown with the head of a lioness and body of a woman.
Sekhmet, whose titles included “Mistress of Dread” and “Lady of Slaughter,” dealt in pestilence, warfare and vengeance. Lacovara said people would have prayed to the goddess.
“You wanted her on your side; you didn’t want to make her mad,” he said. “She was pretty powerful. She almost destroyed all of mankind.”
Sekhmet appears courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley, Calif.
A priest’s linen robe recently found bundled in the bottom of Ankhefenmut’s coffin is part of the exhibition. So are hieroglyphs — characters used to symbolize words — carved in a tall, 1,400-pound piece of sandstone on loan from the Brooklyn Museum. The message from the past includes drawings of Pharaoh Ramses II, the god Amun and Amun’s wife, Mut. Lacovara said most of the “words” are about Ramses, and testaments to his strength and courage.
There are even some pieces with pop culture accents. An Egyptian scarab necklace and earrings — 3,000 years old — were worn by actress Anne Baxter when she played Nefretiri, spouse of Ramses II, in the 1956 film “The Ten Commandments.” A colorful votive cloth, once offered to a deity in hopes of receiving good fortune, looks bright and hardly worn by time.
Tammis K. Groft, the institute’s executive director, said Egyptian-themed exhibitions have been popular at the museum in the past. In 2006, the institute’s Lacovara-curated “Excavating Egypt: Great Discoveries From the Petrie Museum” received positive attention.
“Based on that experience, we had more visitors than we ever had before, our education programs were filled up every day of the week,” Groft said. “We know that people are fascinated by Egypt. So based on that experience and thinking about our community, we could tell the stories of the Albany mummies — that would be very exciting for our community. The Petrie exhibition wasn’t about Albany or Ankhefenmut or the Albany mummies, it was all about an Egyptologist from London, but people flocked to come and see that.”
Groft believes the key to the show was reuniting all pieces of Ankhefenmut’s coffin. “It was interesting to be in the room when they arrived, to know this mummy was in the room with the rest of his coffin for the first time in 100 years,” she said.
Groft has an idea why people are so interested in the culture of ancient Egypt.
“The idea of being preserved forever in this afterlife is interesting,” she said. “You think about these monumental pyramids and architectural temples they were able to build and sustain.”
The exhibit will also include the 28-minute documentary film “The Albany Mummies: Unraveling an Ancient Mystery”; a lecture series; mummified animals; and pieces that show the revival of Egyptian art and design that were popular in the late 1800s into the early 1900s.
As more than 250 school tours are expected between autumn and next spring, there’s even a plastic model of a small “man” that kids will get the chance to wrap in linens. But they’re first going to have to open the lid on his “chest” to remove plastic “organs” — following the methods of Egyptian embalmers.
Lacovara added that Egyptologists are constantly finding new things from the past.
“Everywhere you turn, there’s material,” he said. “Nowadays, a lot of us are trying to sort of save what’s already out of the ground because so much has been exposed and that deteriorates. We’re trying to preserve what we’ve already found.”
Lacovara also believes Egyptians would have been pleased to know their works and people would be honored in the year 2013.
“This is what the ancient Egyptians wanted,” he said. “They wanted to be remembered, they wanted their names to be spoken, they wanted everything to be together. He [Ankhefenmut] would be very happy.”