Ancient Egypt at the Dallas Museum of Art

In 1997, an exhibit entitled Searching for Ancient Egypt that showcased Egyptian objects from the University of Pennsylvania Museum illustrated the overwhelming popularity of Egyptian objects among North Texan audiences that continues to this day. In recent years, the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) has hosted several Egyptian exhibitions including Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs in 2008, coinciding with a lecture given by Dr. Zahi Hawass, and Divine Felines in 2016 that showcased objects from the Brooklyn Museum. The DMA also maintains its own permanent collection of Egyptian objects in a small gallery. This week, the Nile Scribes introduce you to the Dallas Museum of Art’s Egyptian collection.

Mummy and sarcophagus in the Egyptian Gallery (photo: Nile Scribes)

History of the Collection

The DMA developed into a fine arts museum out of the Dallas Art Association, which was founded in 1903, later also incorporating the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts. Today, the museum houses a wide range of cultural, historical, and artistic objects from around the world and always offers free general admission. The Nile Scribes corresponded with Dr. Anne R. Bromberg, The Cecil and Ida Green Curator of Ancient and Asian Art at the DMA, who described the museum’s collections:  

“Through most of its history, the DMA has collected in many different areas of world art. As a consequence, we are now a truly encyclopedic museum, with strengths ranging from American (including Native American) and European art (including classical antiquity) to African, Pre-Columbian, and Latin American art. There is also an important collection of the arts of the Pacific Islands.

My career at the museum has been devoted to expanding the antiquities collection, as my PhD is in Classical Art and Archaeology from Harvard. In 1975 I started to work full time at the DMA as the curator of ancient art and increased the museum’s collection of antiquities. Several of my and my husband’s Egyptian pieces are on display in the galleries as loans, but they are intended gifts to the DMA.”

Kushite Period coffin of Horankh in the Egyptian Gallery (photo: Nile Scribes)

The Egyptian Gallery

The DMA’s Egyptian collection began in the early 1960s and has continued to grow even in recent years. The Egyptian Gallery at the DMA is suitably positioned in a space among the African collections and beside Southern Asian and Islamic art collections. Egyptian collections in North American museums are often positioned next to Greek and Roman or Mediterranean galleries, and their contextualization among collections of other African cultures becomes lost as a result. The experience of walking through an Egyptian gallery into a large space where numerous Igbo, Yoruba, Kongo, and Asante objects were displayed created a sense of synergie between the collections and accurately highlights Egypt as an ancient African kingdom.

Upper fragment from a statue of Seti I (photo: Nile Scribes)

Inside the Egyptian Gallery, visitors will recognize some famous royal figures, including a statue fragment depicting the Ramesside king Seti I, who was the father of the long-lived Ramesses II, and the face of Alexander the Great in the guise of Zeus-Ammon, a Greek-Egyptian composite deity, on a silver coin. When complete, this statue of Seti I probably showed the king in a kneeling position, holding offerings in both his hands, and would have been placed in a temple.

Relief of Ny-ankh-nesut, above (photo: Nile Scribes)

Objects once belonging to some private individuals in the gallery represent the earliest and latest periods of Egyptian history: a relief from the tomb of a Sixth Dynasty official named Ny-ankh-nesut, and an anthropoid coffin of a Twenty-Fifth Dynasty official named Horankh. Ny-ankh-nesut’s mastaba at Saqqara was badly looted early in the twentieth century, and many of his tomb reliefs are now on display in several American museums. The relief is difficult to examine because of how it is displayed, but if you look closely, you can spot a charming detail: one of the offering bearers carries a small hedgehog in a cage in his right hand. Hedgehogs were symbols of regeneration in ancient Egypt because they burrow underground, and hedgehog amulets were worn throughout Egyptian history, but this caged hedgehog was probably intended as a meal for the deceased after death. 

Aside from objects belonging to these well-known persons, the gallery also contains objects found in a funerary context that many private individuals may have included in their burials, like a set of alabaster canopic jars intended to hold the embalmed organs of the deceased, a cartonnage mummy mask, and a beautiful carnelian necklace on loan from the Southern Methodist University.

Egyptian Mummy Portrait from the Roman Period (photo: Nile Scribes)

Outside of the Egyptian gallery, a cartonnage mummy portrait from the Roman Period is on display in the Classical Galleries to showcase the way Egyptian funerary beliefs were adapted by Greek populations to reflect Hellenistic aesthetics, representation, and adornment. Unlike the Roman Period mummy portraits we are accustomed to seeing – naturalistic images painted on wooden panels – this mummy portrait is a three-dimensional likeness with inlaid eyes and elaborately sculpted hair.  

Alabaster canopic jars representing the Four Sons of Horus (photo: Nile Scribes)

At the Dallas Museum of Art, visitors can enjoy works of art made by famous artists such as Vincent van Gogh, El Greco, María Martinez, Claude Monet, and Jackson Pollock, or appreciate the stunning artefacts in the large African and Pre-Columbian collections. If you have the chance to visit, the Nile Scribes recommend that you also seek out the Egyptian gallery – while a much smaller collection than other areas in the museum, the Egyptian objects represent thousands of years of artistic achievements and religious developments in Egypt.

Further Reading

If you are interested in reading more about the Egyptian collection at the Dallas Museum of Art, there are two excellent catalogues that contain some of these objects: Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection (2012) and The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (2009). In addition, the catalogue for the DMA exhibition Searching for Ancient Egypt: Art, Architecture and Artefacts from the University of Pennsylvania Museum from the 1990s remains one of the best Egyptian exhibition catalogues to date.