Ancient Egypt—Discovered Remains In an Art Museum?

Growing up in New York City, I always ran.  Several times a week on my runs, I would pass the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) and look into the giant glass windows that enclosed an ancient Egyptian world packed with tourists.  As a naïve child that had not visited the exhibit, I assumed that it was filled with treasures and mummies.

Lila Acheson Wallace Galleries of Egyptian Art

I was wrong; the Egyptian Art Wing at the MET consists of 26,000 objects arranged in chronological order.  Who analyzed these objects, and with what knowledge did they do so?  Why does the MET have an Egyptian exhibit if it is an art museum?

Egyptologists I have learned, not archaeologists, analyzed these objects.  Egyptologists do not need their Masters in anthropology, but can have other Masters, such as a Masters in Fine Arts.  In the U.S., archaeology is a subdiscipline of anthropology (“the comprehensive study of human species from biological, social, and cultural perspectives using both synchronic and diachronic views”) (Ashmore 4).  According to Ashmore an archaeologist is “a professional scholar who studies the human past through its physical remains” (Ashmore 4).  In comparison, an Egyptologist, according to the University of Chicago, is an individual “whose regular work involves the history, archaeology, language or culture of ancient (pre-Islamic) Egypt”.

The average person does not understand Egyptology or archaeology.  When I asked random Vassar students what Egyptologists and archaeologists do, they had similar responses–looking in the field for mummies, looking for treasures (which are the objectives of looters), “digging up stuff” and “dusting off bones”.

The average person's understanding of Egyptology and archaeology

In reality, an Egyptologist needs to be a “student of language” who analyzes hieroglyphics and artifacts to understand the past. This is contrary to archaeologists who use physical remains as well as diverse and complex methods to understand the past and humanity.  Without an education in Egyptology or archaeology, a false understanding is derived from television, movies, and other media.  Egyptologists and archaeologists are made to seem like adventurers to capture the attention of the public.

So why did the Egyptologists put these objects in the MET?  They did so because Egyptian remains are the basis of Western Art.  Europeans view Egypt as part of their ancestry, and we, as Americans, view Europe as part of our ancestry.  As Americans we are learning about our heritage by studying Egyptian art.  In addition, we have the ability to study a wide variety of ancient Egyptian art, allowing us to better understand our past.  While much of Native American art may have decomposed because of moist environments, Egypt is arid and preserves the past well.  The Egyptian collection, therefore, should be in the MET.

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