By Dakshayani Shankar
How many Pharaohs do you know besides King Tutankhamen and Queen Nefertiti?
At the mention of this question, many people seem instantly compelled to whip out their smartphones to Google all the Pharaohs up or simply resort to quipping out, “We have the MET, and they have a ton of information on Pharaohs.”
Yes, The MET is the cultural hotspot to go to for everything Pharaoh-related. However, its latest exhibition, Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom throws visitors down an Egyptian rabbit hole, filled with intricate archaeological and artistic insights on a lesser-concentrated period of Ancient Egypt, The Middle Kingdom.
And surprisingly, the labyrinth of artifacts is more entertaining and humorous than it is initially expected to be.
The Middle Kingdom was an era of stability, where its seven Pharaohs regained the region of Thebes and extended their control all over the Nile River. Composed from expansive wealth, the Kingdom’s artifacts bear the marks of success these Pharaohs experienced – colossal statues made from expensive precious stones, tombs or temples carved in color and gleaming gold jewelry able to incite envy within any man or woman. Surprisingly, the Middle Kingdom was also the period widely-applauded by later periods as the “realism-inspired sculpture period”, with fixed chins and aquiline noses giving way to full cheeks, thick lips, fine lines, and a clear presence of heavy make-up usage. Sculptors were determined to represent the Pharaoh’s maturity to distinguish his role as the pathway (Son) to God.
The chronological, non-overwhelming system in which the MET has organized this information for the visitor lies at the heart of this exhibition’s success. Pierced by stark white light against a midnight blue backdrop, Mentuhotep II’s imposing statue (one of the seven Pharaohs) marks one’s official initiation into the MET’s Middle Kingdom world. The alternating midnight blue, sandy brown, gold and pastel white walls represent a shift into a different, but equally as fundamental facet of the seven pharaohs’ lives, from the midnight blue walls enclosing the pharaoh’s own courtly existence to the sandy brown walls sprinkled with jewelry and symbols of his queens’ dwelling.
Ultimately, the difference in wall colors and the ‘S’ like structure of this labyrinth-styled exhibition is what prevents visitors from leaving completely gob smacked and lost.
However, the same can’t be said for the individual artifact’s explanation sheets. Whilst the walls clearly present a particular facet of the pharaoh’s life (his existence, his scribes, his women, his family and his afterlife), the explanation sheets pasted below, above or beside the artifacts amplify the complexity of this exhibition’s maze-like structure. One has to spend more time trying to match the explanation sheets to the artifacts, rather than bask in the rich spiritual aura of these lovely artifacts. Considering the fact that all the architects are incredibly beautiful in a shock-worthy manner, it is a shame that the explanation sheets tended to detract this beauty.
Dakshayani Shankar is a Highlighter Staff Columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org