Egypt and Emory
Small collection, large footprint
Peter Lacovara, Senior Curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern Art, Michael C. Carlos Museum


Vol. 11 No. 3
December 2008/January 2009

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Ethically Engaged
Unraveling healthcare's knottiest problems

Researcher’s alleged transgressions lead to more ethics oversight

“Is it reasonable for [a patient] to be able to demand everything be done regardless of what that does to the healthcare system financially, or to its ability to serve a wider population?”

I don’t think the main role of the ethicist is to tell people what’s right and wrong. One who does that in my opinion abdicates one’s responsibility.”

Medicine and Compassion
Reaching across the silos to teach the "art" of healing

Calming Calamity
Things I've learned while I couldn't do my research

Egypt and Emory
Small collection, large footprint


How a small university museum won the greatest exhibition of ancient Egyptian art to come to the Americas has a long and fortuitous back-story. In November, Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum became the host for the American debut of the much-anticipated exhibition “Tutankhamun, the Golden King and the Great Pharaohs.” The exhibition consists of 130 masterworks from the Cairo Museum, including not only treasures from Tutankhamun’s tomb but also great monuments from every important era in Egyptian history, from the Old Kingdom to the Late Period.

The Carlos Museum’s ability to achieve this great honor goes back to a lengthy and intimate association with the Land of the Nile that dates to at least as early as 1920, when Emory theology professor William Arthur Shelton traveled to Egypt and the Holy Land to acquire antiquities that would inspire classes about the history of the Bible. Although Shelton also journeyed to Jerusalem and Baghdad (and recounted his exploits in his entertaining memoir Dust and Ashes of Empires [Cokesbury Press, 1924]), it was his Egyptian purchases that garnered the most public attention. The Atlanta Journal trumpeted, “Mummies from Ancient Egypt Given College: Said to Be the Greatest Collection Ever Assembled in the South.” The notoriety that Shelton’s acquisitions attracted soon earned Emory’s fledgling display the nickname “the Mummy Museum.”

Though not an Egyptologist by training, Shelton accompanied the great scholar and founder of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, James Henry Breasted. Under Breasted’s watchful eye, even with a limited budget, he was able to purchase some important artifacts from the Egyptian Antiquities Service, which in those days did sell items from its excavations. One of the most interesting of these was a mummy of the late Old Kingdom (ca. 2300 B.C.), the oldest Egyptian mummy in an American collection. In addition to this there were painted coffins; a kohl tube inscribed for Queen Tiy, Tutankhamun’s grandmother; a beautifully carved alabaster headrest; and many other artifacts that were then, as they are now, among the best-loved material on display.

Over the intervening years, generations of Atlanta schoolchildren were entertained, educated, and inspired by the legendary “Doc” Woolford D. Baker, a biology professor who delighted in introducing Emory’s oldest alumni. The 1980s saw the arrival of Gay Robins as professor of Egyptian art in Emory’s art history department. Working with museum director Maxwell Anderson, and through the generosity of Harvey Smith, the Connoisseurs, and the Atlantes Society, a number of additional important works were added to the collection.

The Carlos Museum’s Egyptian collections were given their greatest boost in 1999. Through the generosity and foresight of James B. Miller and the Board of the Museum, and aided by the interest generated by Catherine Fox and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the museum was able to acquire an outstanding collection of Egyptian funerary art from the Niagara Falls Museum. The long neglected and forgotten collection had been purchased by the private museum in Egypt in 1860 and was visited by Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Edward VII. Now known as the Charlotte A. Lichirie Collection, the exquisite coffins and mysterious mummies have proven immensely popular additions to the Egyptian galleries. One intriguing piece of the collection, a mummy that had already been suggested to have been a missing royal mummy, was identified by the Carlos—with the help of X-ray and CT-scanning undertaken at Emory Hospital—as most probably that of Ramesses I.

When the collection was first acquired we stipulated that if indeed the mummy that had been thought to have been one of the lost pharaohs turned out to be an actual royal mummy, it would be offered back to Egypt where it belonged—no strings attached. The mummy was returned to Egypt in 2002 with great fanfare as a gesture of goodwill to the people of Egypt from the people of Atlanta, along with fragments from the tomb of Seti I, the most beautiful tomb in the Valley of the Kings, that had also been part of the Niagara collection, picked up from the tomb floor nearly a century and a half before.

The Egyptian collection has continued to grow through a number of gifts, contributions, and bequests, but despite its great popularity, it remains a small collection—less than a fifth the size of the Classical, African, or Ancient Near Eastern Collections of the Carlos Museum. It has been our goal to expand the number, range, quality, and importance of this material, particularly in the area of ancient Nubia. The Carlos Museum has supported a British Museum expedition working with Sudanese and international teams to conduct vital rescue in the fourth Nile Cataract area.

Unfortunately, our efforts to build a collection worthy of a great city and a great university have been frustrated by the rapid disappearance of Egyptian art. The export of antiquities from Egypt was officially stopped in the 1980s, and since then, the prices of what little has become available have risen dramatically. Hopefully, the popularity of the Tutankhamun exhibition will encourage the Atlanta community to support having a Egyptian art here not for a brief exhibition but as a resource for generations to come.

Its collections may be small, but the Carlos’s footprint in the world of Egyptology has been large. It has conceived many groundbreaking exhibitions, beginning with Gay Robins’s “Beyond the Pyramids” exhibition of Egyptian art from the Turin Museum (1990 and 1991), through “Excavating Egypt: Great Discoveries from the Petrie Museum of Egyptology,” (2005) to the current “Wonderful Things: The Harry Burton Photographs and the Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankamun.”

In conjunction with and in addition to these exhibitions have been important publications, lectures, and symposia, as well as field projects in Egypt that include work in the Valley of the Kings along with British colleagues beside the Tomb of Tutankhamun. The Carlos Museum also lent its talented designer, Nancy Roberts, and conservator, Renee Stein, to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo to help re-install the earliest and most precious objects in the museum in a new state-of-the-art display. In addition, the Carlos has also worked on an exchange program to train Egyptian Museum professionals and conservators.

Most recently, we have begun a collaborative project with Georgia Tech and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to survey, excavate, and publish the Palace-city of Amenhotep III at Malqata. Malqata is famous as the palace that the young Tutankhamun grew up in and one of the best-preserved settlement sites in ancient Egypt. The Carlos Museum will launch webcasts and dig diaries during the active excavation periods.

Through this long history and our current efforts, the Carlos Museum has secured this extraordinary opportunity to have some of the greatest artworks ever produced in ancient Egypt here in Atlanta. As Emory and Atlanta celebrate the endless public fascination with ancient Egypt, it is to be hoped that Egyptology will continue to grow and be an important part of the Carlos Museum and the university’s curriculum.