Amarna at the Penn Museum

Image of an Egyptian (Non-Funerary) MaskPhiladelphia is in the throes of Egyptomania at the moment, with a heavily promoted King Tutankhamun exhibit at the Franklin Institute and a companion exhibit featuring artifacts from Amarna at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.

The Franklin exhibit has been disappointing for many, with negative comments all over the Internet. This review, from summarizes many of the objections:

As long as you understand that you are seeing 130 beautiful treasures from the tomb of King Tut, other Valley of the Kings tombs and additional ancient sites, but not Tutankhamum’s death mask or inner coffins, you should not be disappointed in Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

In addition, the admission price of $32.50 (weekends) and $27.50 weekdays is very steep when compared to the prior and larger Titanic and Body Worlds exhibitions which were also held at the Franklin Institute.

Missing from the Franklin are most of the artifacts that were featured in the dramatic and extensive King Tut exhibit that famously toured the US in 1977; they were deemed too fragile to travel out of Egypt. The incredible funerary mask that featured in the seventies exhibition is among the pieces that have not returned; distressingly, the promoters of the current exhibit have chosen to prominently feature an image of Tut (above, left) that most people will assume is the mask — though it is actually a photo of a miniature organ coffin.

(Londoners take note: This is the Tutankhmamun exhibit that opens in your city in November, 2007.)

Image of a Side View of an Egyptian StatueForewarned regarding these matters and cognizant of reports of huge crowds, Allium and I decided to sit this one out, and headed over to the Amarna exhibit instead. The good news is that Amarna is well worth seeing. It’s a small, quiet, completely non-glitzy experience; perfect for those who prefer their museum experiences contemplative rather than entertaining.

The bad news is that the curation is minimal — as seems to be the trend these days — and incredibly sloppy. Although English is normally read from left to right, and enumeration written likewise, several displays have numbers slapped on willy-nilly, in an apparently random fashion. No attempt has been made to ensure that the descriptive cards lie in the same order (or even in numerical order) beneath the artifacts.

Under these circumstances, trying to match an identifying numeral or artifact with its corresponding card is counter-intuitive and distracts quite a bit from the viewing experience. In some cases, identifying text appeared to be missing, and at least once, available text seemed to identify an completely different artifact. Why, one wonders?

Curatorial carelessness aside, the artifacts themselves are interesting, and sparse attendance (at least on the weekday when we were there) meant that viewing was unhampered.

In addition to the current Amarna exhibit, the Penn Museum maintains two Egyptian galleries, including a royal palace. There’s a completely pointless video at the entrance to the galleries, but the galleries themselves are worth visiting; curation here is much better than that for Amarna.

One entrance fee covers the entire museum, including Amarna.

I have a few more posts lined up that feature Amarna to greater or lessor degrees; I’ll be putting them up as time allows.