‘Ancient Egypt’ exhibit at Art Institute showcases museum’s collection in whole new light

Although it wasn’t planned this way, the gallery is opening in a big year for Egyptian art — the 200th anniversary of the deciphering of hieroglyphics and the centennial of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb.

SHARE ‘Ancient Egypt’ exhibit at Art Institute showcases museum’s collection in whole new light
As part of the “Life and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt” exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, the “Coffin of Nesi-pa-her-hat” (1069-945 B.C.) is being displayed in an open position so that visitors can see into the brightly decorated, 6-foot-long piece as they descend into the gallery space.  

As part of the “Life and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt” exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, the “Coffin of Nesi-pa-her-hat” (1069-945 B.C.) is being displayed in an open position so that visitors can see into the brightly decorated, 6-foot-long piece as they descend into the gallery space.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Mention ancient Egyptian art in Chicago and many people immediately think of the Field Museum’s 23 human mummies or the dramatic statue of King Tutankhamun at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute that stands more than 16 feet in height.

Less known is the work from this ever-popular historical realm at the Art Institute of Chicago, a portion of which will return to public display Feb. 11 in a newly refurbished, lower-level space after being unseen for nearly 10 years.

Egyptian gallery AIC

‘Life and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt’

When: Opening Feb. 11

Where: Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan

Admission: Free with regular museum admission

Info: artic.edu


“A long time coming,” Ashley Arico, the Art Institute’s assistant curator of ancient Egyptian art, said of the works’ re-emergence, “but we’re extremely excited to share them with visitors again.”

While the Art Institute’s collection, which numbers about 1,000 objects, might not be as flashy or grand as the Field or Oriental Institute holdings, it speaks more to artistic practice and the role of art in ancient Egypt.

“It is in scale a smaller collection,” said Arico, “but it has some very high-quality pieces in it.”

She described the three Chicago-area collections as complementary. “We’ve worked very closely with the OI and the Field throughout the decades that Egyptian art has been collected in Chicago,” she said.

Nearly 80 objects spanning 3,000 years will be shown in the Art Institute’s new Egyptian gallery, a 3,150-square-foot space that was formerly devoted to Islamic artworks, which are now being dispersed to other parts of the museum.

Located on the lower level below an atrium gallery that links the Modern Wing with the American galleries and the rest of the museum, the gallery is accessible via a pair of staircases at the east end of the Alsdorf Galleries.

This bronze sculpture of Osiris, the ruler of the ancient Egyptian underworld, is among the highlights of the “Life and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt” exhibit.

This bronze sculpture of Osiris, the ruler of the ancient Egyptian underworld, is among the highlights of the “Life and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt” exhibit.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

“It is such a central collection to the museum’s holdings,” Arico said, “that we really wanted to make sure that it had its space.”

Ancient Egyptian art is not being included, as it was in the past, with the Arts of the Ancient Mediterranean and Byzantium, which occupy the first-floor galleries that ring the McKinlock Court. Because of a 2020 reorganization of museum departments, it became part of the Arts of Africa, so it could be understood in context with art from the rest of that vast continent.

Works in the new display, which is titled “Life and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt,” will be organized thematically and not chronologically. Among the themes are religious practices in the ancient civilization as well as how the Egyptians presented themselves in daily life through the use of cosmetics and jewelry and how they wanted to be remembered for eternity.

An artist’s plaque from the Ptolemaic Period (332–30 B.C.) depicting a ram is part of the “Life and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt” exhibit inside the Arts of Ancient Egypt gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago.

An artist’s plaque from the Ptolemaic Period (332–30 B.C.) depicting a ram is part of the “Life and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt” exhibit inside the Arts of Ancient Egypt gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

“Throughout,” Arico said, “we’re trying to underline the fact that this is a collection that is very much rooted in Africa.”

Anchoring the gallery will be the “Coffin of Nesi-pa-her-hat” from 1069-945 B.C. It has been placed between the two staircases and will be displayed in an open position so that visitors can see into the brightly decorated 6-foot-long piece as they descend into the space.

“This one is exciting to have back on view, because it hasn’t been displayed at the Art Institute in over 80 years,” Arico said. “The work is very old and fragile, so it needed some conservation attention which we’ve been able to take care of in preparation for this new installation.

Many of the holdings at the Art Institute were acquired in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when intense archeological excavation was under way across Egypt. “Most of the collection was here by 1920,” Arico said. “Our first piece came in 1890, which makes us the first Chicago museum to start collecting ancient Egyptian artwork.”

Among the strengths of the collection is a “really wonderful” group of what Arico called “artist plaques” — intricately carved limestone reliefs from the Ptolemaic Period (332–30 B.C.). Among them are pieces depicting a ram and quail chick.

Another high point is what the curator described as “really lovely bronze sculptures” of gods, such as a “fantastic piece” depicting Osiris, the ruler of the underworld, in a kind of “mummy-form pose.” The copper-alloy statuette stands 10⅝ inches tall and dates to 664-332 B.C.

The “Stela of Amenemhat and Hemet” limestone and pigment slab from the Middle Kingdom (about 1956-1877 B.C.), depicts a deceased couple with food and drink for the afterlife and includes a prayer along two edges. 

The “Stela of Amenemhat and Hemet” limestone and pigment slab from the Middle Kingdom (about 1956-1877 B.C.), depicts a deceased couple with food and drink for the afterlife and includes a prayer along two edges.

Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

A third strength is a concentration of “stelas,” slabs of carved and painted stone. A key example is the “Stela of Amenemhat and Hemet” from the Middle Kingdom, about 1956-1877 B.C. This limestone and pigment work, about 16⅜ inches across, was probably part of a public tomb chapel or funerary monument. It depicts a deceased couple with food and drink for the afterlife and includes a prayer along two edges.

Arico also highlighted the 40-inch-long “Funerary Papyrus of Tayu-henut-Mut,” which spotlights a temple singer from what is present-day Luxor. She is shown praising the god, Osiris, with text behind her from the “Book of Going Forth By Day,” which is better known as the “Book of the Dead” today.

“It’s just been recently conserved and reframed,” Asogi said, “so we’re really excited for people to see that again.”

Although it wasn’t planned this way, the gallery is opening in a big year for Egyptian art — the 200th anniversary of the deciphering of hieroglyphics and the centennial of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb.

“It is a fortuitous coincidence,” Arico said.

The Arts of Ancient Egypt gallery features the “Life and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt” exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Arts of Ancient Egypt gallery features the “Life and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt” exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

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