On a bright late-winter morning recently, Lawrence Berman was in his natural habitat, as far away from daylight as he could get. The senior curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern Art for the Museum of Fine Arts, Berman has spent endless hours underground in ancient tombs or cloistered in airless research centers. On this day, he was deep at the museum’s heart, where he’d just opened the first phase of the long-awaited do-over of its Pyramid Age Egyptian galleries.
Here in the relative dark, his mood was understandably bright. When I remarked on the space’s crisply contemporary but nonetheless tomblike feel, Berman grinned widely. “You know, you’re the second person today to say that,” he effused. “And I think that’s a very good thing.”
The space, called “Masterpieces of Egyptian Sculpture from the Pyramid Age,” inaugurates the new home for one of the museum’s most important collections: Works discovered at Giza from Egypt’s Old Kingdom, stretching back more than 4,500 years. It’s likely the world’s finest collection of Pyramid-Age Egyptian art outside the homeland. When the museum says that “no other American museum can tell the story of art in the Pyramid Age quite like the MFA can,” you won’t hear many arguments from its peers. (The project’s next phase will include five galleries on the second level in the Art of the Ancient World Wing and an airy, open staircase, likely to dent the tomblike quality of the current display. It’s due to open in the fall.)
The larger collection owes to a joint Harvard-MFA excavation led by legendary archaeologist George Reisner beginning in 1906, the only American outfit granted access to the great pyramids of Giza by the Egyptian government. Under terms of the agreement, the group’s findings would be subject to some favorable tithing; the Egyptian government would keep what it deemed important, while the American partners were free to take a healthy portion for themselves. And so they did, in volume and in a relative hurry — the excavation was active until 1928 — with a remarkable collection landing in the MFA’s hands.
Reisner had his failings, some of them foundational. The museum explored his deep racial prejudice in 2019′s Ancient Nubia Now exhibition. The show was an opportunity to address Reisner’s dismissal of Nubia, the cradle of African civilization just down the Nile, as crude and culturally inferior to its Egyptian neighbors — a position since proven to be meritless and likely the product of Reisner’s own racism. The museum inherits that unsavory legacy along with the remarkable objects he collected; that’s a tangle that can’t be unwound, though it can be acknowledged. It’s worth noting that, despite airing out that ugly history, the museum doesn’t have a permanent gallery for its expansive Nubian collection nor any immediate plans for one.
The galleries the Egyptian collection called home since the 1920s were “a bit old,” Berman said, acknowledging both the museum’s active work and its shift in thinking since Reisner’s time. During and between lockdowns this past year, the MFA was busy setting that right. Gone are the cramped and dusty vitrines. Instead, the new gallery is capacious, giving the objects room to breathe.
The space falls just the right side of sparse, somber and low-lit with deep cobalt walls and high ceilings. It makes room for each piece to stand out individually, with its own story to tell. None leap out more than the arresting, ochre-stained bust of Prince Ankhhaf, from about 2500 BCE, depicting the leader believed to have overseen construction of the second of Giza’s three great pyramids and the carving of the sphinx. The bust is installed here at human-height; I stood nose-to-nose and looked him in the eye. It conjured a bridge across millennia that I found disarmingly intimate. Neither stylized nor reverential — bags under the eyes, jowls drooping — Ankhhaf’s portrait, and the museum’s installation of it, cut through nearly 5,000 years of history to speak frankly, human to human.
It all works with Berman’s hope for the space, where the objects can embody historical narrative about the Old Kingdom but also stand alone as individual artworks. That can be a missing piece in displays of antiquity, at least in my experience. Most often, objects clustered behind glass can distance viewers more than engage them, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope, evoking a faraway feeling that amplifies difference instead of what we might share. And there is plenty of common ground, whether it’s the significance of family or faith, or, and this is a big one, the dominance of wealth. (Everything here relates to the ruling elite; plus ça change.) Even so, it all feels up close and personal, a proposition of shared humanity across the ages.
The center of the main gallery features a simple array of busts found in what the MFA/Harvard expedition identified as “Tomb G,” built during the reigns of kings Khufu and Khafra, from the early 2600s to the early 2500s BCE. Their diversity of style and expression breaks expectations of a monolithic ancient Egyptian aesthetic. An accompanying mini-exhibition in the gallery’s entry hall is Berman’s specific challenge to that notion — more on that soon — but wait here for a moment, for there are more stories to tell, most of them about you.
That’s what art does: It makes a broad offering, and leaves you to choose. Loosened (at least a little) from their historical duty, these pieces feel rejuvenated to do their original work. Prescriptive histories denote what’s significant and what’s not, and they remain important. But the new display feels liberating, giving permission to exult in simple aesthetic experience. It coaxes you away from either/or and toward both/and. The new install stands back and lets the objects shine. Unburdened, I felt free to pick my favorites, which, it turns out, wasn’t hard. There are remarkable things here, but nothing that left me giddy like the three sculptures that anchor the space, uncanny specimens of unsettling perfection that look as though they could have rolled off an assembly line last week. (And one of them is nothing but a fragment, but a deeply perfect fragment, as though it was made to be that way. Alongside the others, it feels like an artistic response, a contemporary take on antiquity.)
Among a collection where everything is exceptional, the presentation of these works stands apart: Monumental effigies of kings and queens and spirit guides carved from impossibly hard, dark stone. (Greywacke is durable enough to endure millennia largely unscathed.) The three pieces sit side by side, spot-lit, with plenty of elbow room. (I fell for the deified hare accompanying a figure of King Menkaura from around 2490 BCE.) The experience feels reverential, an echo of the tombs where the works received offerings meant to animate spirits. And the works, too, feel animated, perpetually fresh and ready for the afterlife. In their presence, there’s a sense of time dissolving. It feels unnervingly contemporary, connecting faraway worlds in the simple act of looking.
Speaking of looking, to have gotten here, you’ll have walked a gantlet of busts of all sizes and styles, spanning some 1,300 years from the first to 13th centuries BCE. I won’t say I’ve saved the best for last; for those enthralled by the ancient world, there’s no best or better, just different and great. Different, though, is what struck me here. Where the main gallery undercuts the notion of a monolithic Egyptian aesthetic, this display, called “Faces of Ancient Egypt,” obliterates it.
While it’s dominated by the MFA’s remarkable statue of Lady Sennuwy, from the mid-1900s BCE, most of the others are busts: the quartzite head of Amenhotep III, 1390-1352 BCE; the sandstone Head of King Tutankhamen, 1336–1327 BCE; and Man with double lotus bud diadem, made of Granodiorite, from the Greco-Roman period of the first century BCE. (He’s the only one with curly locks.) But the most renowned, and with good reason, is the fist-size wonder known as “The “Boston Green Head,” a portrait of an unknown holy man — a priest of some kind — that’s one of the most captivating and mysterious objects in antiquity. It’s devoted to realism; even without his nose, the little guy is clearly consternated about something. His eyes narrow into the slightest squint. His brow is furrowed, forehead creased, and mouth tensed the smallest amount past a resting frown.
For me, it strikes the mood. So much of the new display seems to be about both demystifying and humanizing ancient culture and connecting it to the present. Well, Green Head, mission accomplished. After the year we’ve had? He is us.
MASTERPIECES OF EGYPTIAN SCULPTURE FROM THE PYRAMID AGE
At the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave. Timed-entry tickets required. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org