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A colossus of a show 

Arts Center’s ‘Pharaohs’ rules the cultural scene.

click to enlarge PREPARING FOR 'PHARAOHS': Curatorial assistant Laura Shafer checks on condition of mummy.
  • PREPARING FOR 'PHARAOHS': Curatorial assistant Laura Shafer checks on condition of mummy.

There's something special about mummies. We love mummies, or most of us do, anyway, a fact that old movies and Anne Rice books attest to.

So the mummies alone should bring the crowds to the Arkansas Arts Center's 2009 blockbuster, “World of the Pharaohs: Treasures of Egypt Revealed,” opening Sept. 25. It's the biggest cultural event of the fall — and winter and spring — in Central Arkansas.

But the mummies are a minimal part of the exhibit, which was guest curated by William H. Peck, author, Egyptologist and retired senior curator of ancient art at the Detroit Institute of Art. What visitors — whom the Arts Center hopes will number 300,000-plus during “Pharaohs” nine-month stay — will see are artifacts that tell the story of how these people whose remains will be on display lived their lives. The exhibit's 200-plus objects (with the exception of the two mummies), part of a collection from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and excavated in the early 20th century by Harvard archeologist George Andrew Reisner, will portray Egyptian life between 3,000 BCE and the time of Christ with stunning objects in gold, painted wall fragments, carvings and cups, statuettes, jewelry, travertine vessels, amulets. A false door to a tomb. A dress in faience beads. A nearly 5-foot-tall granite head of Ramses II.

The Ramses colossus will stand guard at the entry to the exhibit, on which the Arts Center, with the help of sponsors, has spent nearly $2 million to bring to Little Rock. In the Rockefeller and Wolfe galleries, reconfigured for the exhibit, artifacts will be grouped to portray the dynastic system of kings, the culture's religious beliefs, including life after death, and what everyday life was like, as reflected in wall reliefs and effigies meant to accompany the dead in the afterlife.

In this way Peck, who is engaged in current-day excavation in Egypt, and Arts Center curator Joseph Lampo present the objects not merely as art — though they are certainly that. Whenever possible, the exact place where artifacts were recovered and what is known about their use will be provided.

The oldest objects in the exhibit are pre-dynastic arrowheads dating to 7000 BCE. Lampo hopes those artifacts, so like those of our own Indian prehistory, will help viewers make a connection to their human crafters. The nearly 4-foot-tall false door of Inty, dating to between 2465 to 2350 BCE, is among the oldest objects in the show; among the most recent is a mummy mask that dates to the Roman period — the years before and after the time of Christ. The deceased depicted in the mask feels like family now that its image has rolled all over town on a specially-painted CATA bus and has been seen on billboards and in the extensive regional marketing of the exhibit. It is also on the cover of this issue of the Times.

Because the Boston museum's mummies are too delicate to travel, and because Lampo knows that people expect to see mummies when they go to an exhibit on Egypt — especially in Arkansas, where a) many cherish the memory of the mummy that was on exhibit at the old science museum and b) exhibits of priceless artifacts from Egypt have heretofore been virtually nil — the Arts Center borrowed two. One came from the University of Quebec and the other from the Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art in Shawnee, Okla. (As an introduction to its Egyptian collection, the latter has a clever and informative page on Egyptian culture on its website, www.mgmoa.org.)

The repatriation of artifacts to their countries of origin is an enormous issue now, and the Egyptian government is suing various museums and governments — including the United States — to repatriate its looted artifacts (including the famed bust of Nefertiti, which is in a German museum). Most of the artifacts in “Pharaoh” were excavated under an agreement with the Egyptian government in which the museum retained half.

As the price tag suggests, the exhibit is the most ambitious and expensive ever brought to the Arts Center, and tickets will cost between $14 and $22. Among exhibit loan and insurance costs, the Arts Center has had to provide special cases that control for humidity and temperature, reconfigure its galleries and build space for a special gift shop in the atrium. It is bringing in lecturers every month except December and January at a not inconsiderable cost, Lampo said. A dining patio has been constructed between the Paul Signac Gallery and restaurant; an atrium cafe will provide light food. Entry to the Arts Center will be through a tent erected at the front.

Major sponsors are Harriet and Warren Stephens, and there are scores of smaller sponsors. The Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau provided $100,000 for marketing, half in in-kind group tour recruitment and half for an advertising campaign. 

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