Cooler still is the fact that several objects on display are on loan from the Cazenovia Library, which houses a collection of its own Egyptian artifacts (see accompanying story, page 6). “What we lent to Munson-Williams is just a portion of what we have,” says library director Betsy Kennedy. “We do have a mummy, named Hen, a falcon mummy and an ibis mummy.” At MWPAI, the library’s cat mummy occupies a display case in a room with other like bodily remains.
“She requested certain things; she knew enough not to ask for the mummy,” says Kennedy with a chuckle about Anna D’Ambrosio, director and chief curator at MWPAI. “She chose my favorite things so I thought she had good taste. I love the way it’s displayed; I think it’s very well done. We were honored to be able to share things from our little museum.”
Shadow of the Sphinx borrows heavily from other museums as well, although several items are from MWPAI’s collection. It takes up a good deal of the museum’s second floor, with a timeline and children’s activities located on the ground floor. “We are celebrating our items,” says D’Ambrosio, “and placing them into the greater context of the other objects in the exhibit.”
In addition to the mummies, upstairs you’ll find antiquities, jewelry, furniture, paintings and sculptures, all with a focus on ancient Egypt, a subject that never seems to go out of style. In total, more than 150 objects are on display, from 31 museums and private collections. “All the objects are fascinating,” D’Ambrosio notes, “and they all have great appeal.”
Greeting exhibit visitors are two large photos from Rachel Proctor (as in Munson-Williams-Proctor) showing her or her husband Frederick Proctor from their 1902 visit to Egypt. One captures a sphinx, its magnitude dwarfing Frederick as he stands in front of it. A display case also holds an album of photos Rachel shot 110 years ago, opened to reveal a page of black-and-white history.
Inside the three exhibit halls, the artifacts are arranged by theme. The far right-hand room holds the mummy goods: a mummified head, a coffin lid and base, Cazenovia’s cat and more. The main room has paintings, a collection of scarab-related items (including a surprise; more on that later), flatware, pottery, furniture and more, all with Egypt or images of the Mediterranean country as a theme. The bling room, labeled “Jewels of the Nile,” awaits at left, with a gorgeous Egyptian broad collar, in shades of blue and green, dating from 1539 to 1075 B.C. It joins a genuine silver bracelet and one gold earring, both thousands of years old.
Scattered throughout the exhibit are small wooden boxes grouped into several Scent Stations. Sniff through the screens on top to take in the embalming spices used in the mummification process: cumin, cardamom, pepper and more. Remember, underneath those wraps were rotting corpses!
Displays in an adjacent room remind us of just how enamored we are of ancient Egypt. On one wall you’ll see old sheet music with camels, pyramids, sphinxes and the like on the covers. On another wall are movie posters, most notably one touting the original 1932 Mummy movie starring Boris Karloff: “It comes to life!”
Fascination with Cleopatra has never waned; it’s likely more people have heard of the original African Queen (and know that Anglo Elizabeth Taylor played her in the movies) than even know who she was. In fact, a quick Internet search brought up a History Channel page on Cleopatra that says there is no written history about her. Instead, any information about her comes from the Romans, who made mention of her intrigues with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.
This exhibit includes its share of artifacts and pop culture items related to the mysterious woman who ruled Egypt from approximately 50 B.C. to 20 B.C. She certainly wasn’t the first (nor will she be the last) woman to use sex to her advantage, but her liaisons helped lay the foundation for the Western world.
Paintings—romantic, stylized and unrealistic (check out Cleopatra and her entourage in 1885’s “Love’s Labour Lost” by Edwin Long)—show that the fascination with ancient Egypt continued into the 19th century. Actually, ancient Egypt still captivates, and this exhibit helps remind us why. “People have responded so well to the exhibit because there’s something for everyone,” says D’Ambrosio.
As for the surprise, we are not in the business of spoilers, but suffice it to say that one item in Shadow of the Sphinx will be remarkably familiar to Syracusans. It never fails to captivate, and is worth the drive to Utica to see in a different context.
Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, 310 E. Genesee St., Utica, is open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, 1 to 5 p.m. Tickets for Shadow of the Sphinx run $10 for adults, students ages 7 to 18 and college students cost $5 and children 6 and younger are free. For more information, call 797-0000 or visit mwpai.org.
Out of Africa
A mere 45-minute drive into Madison County brings you to Cazenovia and its public library, which houses a collection of Egyptology on its second floor. “In 1890, a wealthy man in town named Robert James Hubbard donated the building we’re in now to be used as a library, but the upstairs was empty,” says library director Betsy Kennedy. “He thought it would be a good idea to have a museum there, and he donated several objects to be displayed.”
Hubbard wasn’t satisfied, however, and in 1894 entered into his diary that he was heading to Egypt to buy a mummy. “He bought several other artifacts as well,” Kennedy notes, “and had them shipped to Cazenovia. He oversaw the construction of display cases, and we still have some of the original labels in his handwriting. He was really involved in the whole process. He really wanted these artifacts to benefit the community.”
To that end, the second floor of the library, 100 Albany St., Cazenovia, is open to the public the same hours the library is: Mondays to Fridays, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. “What’s on display now is just a portion of what we have,” Kennedy adds. “We have quite a bit on display about our mummy, Hen; we know his name by the hieroglyphics on his case that were translated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1940s. He’s been X-rayed twice and cat-scanned. We can really flesh out, so to speak, what his life would have been like. We are working hard on making Hen more of a person than an object.”
Visit cazenovialibrary.org for more and detailed information on the Egyptian artifacts held there.
Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute holds a variety of educational opportunities for those who want to dig a little deeper into how ancient Egypt continues to influence popular culture. Here are a few.
• Sunday Lecture Series. Aug. 12, 1:30 p.m. “Cleopatra: From African Queen to Shifting Icon,”
by Shelley Haley, Ph.D., a professor of classics and Africana studies at Hamilton College, Clinton. $10.
• Gallery Talk Series.
Friday, Aug. 10, 12:15 p.m. Clare Fitzgerald, a Ph.D. candidate in ancient Egyptian art from Emory University, will speak on “Difficult Definitions: An Unusual Coffin from the Michael C. Carlos Museum.
Aug. 24, 12:15 p.m. Paula Caruana, Decorative Arts assistant at MWPAI, speaks on “Mummy Dearest: Our Enduring Fascination with Egypt.
Both talks are free with exhibition admission.
• Book Discussion. Aug. 16, 6 p.m.
Crocodile in the Sandbank, by Elizabeth Peters, with the discussion facilitated by Betsy Kennedy, director of the Cazenovia Library. Free.
For a detailed listing, visit mwpai.org.