Visiting the Glyptoteket in Copenhagen

This week, our guest blogger Katherine Piper is back from Copenhagen to share her thoughts on the Egyptian galleries at the Glyptoteket. The Glyptoteket boasts a stunning collection of Egyptian and Nubian objects, many of which were acquired through the sponsorship of such notable archaeologists as W.M. Flinders Petrie, John Garstang, and Francis Llewellyn Griffith.

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Painted limestone relief showing Kiya worshipping the Aten, remodelled to depict the princess Meryetaten, c. 1365–1347 BC (Photo: Katherine Piper)
Painted limestone relief showing Kiya worshipping the Aten, remodelled to depict the princess Meryetaten, c. 1365–1347 BC (Photo: Katherine Piper)

Guest Scribe: Katherine Piper

If you know one piece from the Egyptian collection of the Glyptoteket in Copenhagen, it’s probably a talatat block from Amarna, carved to show the head of a woman wearing an elegant Nubian-style wig, praising the Aten. This lady is often identified as Kiya, a secondary wife of Akhenaten. However, the back of Kiya’s head has been modified (or mutilated, depending on your taste) into the elongated skull shape of one the royal daughters, the eldest princess, Meryetaten, although the carved line of her original head shape is still clearly visible. If you’re into Amarna royal family speculation (I am not), this talatatblock is among other important objects such as the vandalised coffin from KV45 and the inscription naming Tutankhamun as the king’s son of his body without specifying which king. It’s arguably the highlight of a small but very fine Amarna collection displayed at the Glyptoteket, which, if you are a lover of all things Amarna, is worth the entrance fee alone.

View of the Amarna artefacts on display in the Small Egyptian Room (Photo: Katherine Piper)
View of the Amarna artefacts on display in the Small Egyptian Room (Photo: Katherine Piper)

History of the Collection

Anyone who has studied Egyptology at an English-speaking institution probably knows this collection as the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek rather than the Glyptoteket (the museum seems to call itself the Glyptoteket, so that is the name I will use, but either appears to be acceptable). Its name is derived from the Greek roots glyptos (“carved”) and theke(“storage place”), as the founding collection was primarily sculpture. The collection was founded by Carl Jacobsen, brewing magnate, avid collector of art and antiquities, and general patron of the arts as well as a philanthropist (he also commissioned and paid for the famous statue of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid in the harbour as a gift to the city of Copenhagen). The Egyptian collection is a combination of Carl Jacobsen’s personal collection of antiquities, pieces bought on the international antiquities market, and items from excavations which were partly sponsored by the New Carlsberg Foundation, which Jacobsen established in 1902 as a charitable trust.

View of the Great Egyptian Gallery (Photo: Katherine Piper)
View of the Great Egyptian Gallery (Photo: Katherine Piper)

The main room you enter first from the steps of the Winter Garden (an elegant domed courtyard) is the Great Egyptian Gallery where the monumental sculpture is displayed. On one side of this room is the Small Egyptian Room, where “works of art in small format” are displayed in glass cases. On the opposite side is a series of rooms containing false doors and offering scenes from Old Kingdom mastaba tombs, grave goods and stelae, and coffins, sarcophagi, and mummies. At the end of the Great Egyptian Gallery is the Egyptian Rotunda, in which the heads of statues and statuettes are displayed, along with a column from the temple of Taharqa at Kawa. Appropriately, the Nubian room is accessed from the Rotunda.

Sandstone column from the temple of Taharqa, Kawa, c. 690 – 664 BC (Photo: Katherine Piper)
Sandstone column from the temple of Taharqa, Kawa, c. 690 – 664 BC (Photo: Katherine Piper)

The Egyptian and Nubian Galleries

Before I get onto the collection, I want to talk about the galleries themselves. The Egyptian and Nubian galleries have been designed intentionally for the collection. Both galleries were built as part of the second phase of the building, which was completed in 1906, and they are all beautiful. The Great Egyptian Gallery, the Egyptian Rotunda, and the Nubian Gallery are all airy, high-ceilinged rooms with plenty of natural light. The Great Egyptian Gallery and Rotunda both have glass ceiling sections and elegant Egyptianising designs inlaid into the floors in mosaic tiles (a clever interlinked papyrus pattern in the Great Egyptian Gallery and a lily flower pattern in the Rotunda). The Small Egyptian Room is bright and well-lit, which keeps the space from feeling claustrophobic with the glass display cases on every side, and the rooms containing the death-related collections are dark, but with the objects cleverly lit with spotlights. I also loved the way that the doorways from the Great Egyptian Gallery into the side rooms have been framed with Egyptian doorway surrounds and lintels from the collection, integrating the collection into the design of the gallery. The overall effect is that all of the elements work together as a whole to make the galleries feel like pleasant places where you can take your time looking at things, rather than rushing from one thing to the next.

Three portraits of Akhenaten, Amarna, c. 1365 – 1347 BC (Photo: Katherine Piper)
Three portraits of Akhenaten, Amarna, c. 1365 – 1347 BC (Photo: Katherine Piper)

The Glyptoteket is very upfront about the fact that it is an art museum: the Egyptian collection is literally billed as “Art from Ancient Egypt”. As an archaeologist by training, this slightly raises my hackles because with ancient Egypt, a painting or sculpture is never just art as we think of it in a modern context, (famously, there is no word for “art” in ancient Egyptian). The collection is mostly arranged thematically rather than chronologically, which is understandable, as the purpose of the collection is to display objects based on their aesthetic value rather than to create a historical or archaeological narrative of Egyptian history. For me, it does still feel a bit strange to go from Fifth Dynasty offering scenes to Ptolemaic temple reliefs to a Sekhmet statue from the New Kingdom in close proximity to one another – but this is something which may not bother most visitors. The sculpture and reliefs in the Great Egyptian Gallery are displayed with plenty of space between them, so you can get around them to see them from different angles without feeling crowded.

Limestone sarcophagus of Nesihor, showing traces of pigment and gold lead, Ptolemaic (Photo: Katherine Piper)
Limestone sarcophagus of Nesihor, showing traces of pigment and gold lead, Ptolemaic (Photo: Katherine Piper)

The labelling throughout the museum is in both Danish and English, and is generally very good, though it is a little inconsistent in the Small Egyptian Room. On the one hand, there are some excellent information panels explaining what faience is and how it was used in ancient Egypt, but on the other hand, there is a large collection of Late Period bronzes whose labels simply give the object’s accession number and state what the figurine represents, e.g. “Cat” or “The God Horus”. I hoped there might be an information panel explaining that these objects were all Late Period bronzes, but there isn’t, which is a shame.

Bronze head of a cat with inlaid eyes and a scarab on its forehead, Late Period (Photo: Katherine Piper)
Bronze head of a cat with inlaid eyes and a scarab on its forehead, Late Period (Photo: Katherine Piper)

The Egyptian Collection

As it happens, the collection of Late Period bronzes was bought for the Glyptoteket at auctions in Paris in 1890 and 1891 on behalf of Carl Jacobsen by Valdemar Schmidt, the first professor of Egyptology in Denmark and a friend of Jacobsen’s, in order to put together a display of ancient Egyptian deities. I know this because I bought a book about the establishment of the Egyptian collection in the Glyptoteket gift shop (How It All Began: The Story of Carl Jacobsen’s Egyptian Collection 1884 – 1925 by Mogens Jørgensen). Without the book, I would have guessed that the bronzes came from Carl Jacobsen personal cabinet collection, the kind of thing a wealthy gentleman of his time might have kept (cf. Sigmund Freud’s collection).

Sign directing visitors to the room displaying mummies and coffins (Photo: Katherine Piper)
Sign directing visitors to the room displaying mummies and coffins (Photo: Katherine Piper)

When I reviewed the Museo Egizio in Turin for the Nile Scribes last year, I was particularly impressed with the red mummy warning signs on cases displaying human remains. You won’t see any actual human remains at the Glyptoteket (it is, after all, an art museum), though there are two wrapped Roman-period mummies on display, and there is a sign indicating where they are. The mummies, coffins, sarcophagi, and Roman mummy portraits are displayed together in a room accessed by a long, gently sloping staircase with low lights on the steps, which reminded me of the long galleries in later royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Creating the feeling of going into a tomb to look at the mummies and coffins is a really nice touch, and it was one of my favourite things about the Egyptian galleries at the Glyptoteket.

View of the mummies and coffins room (Photo: Katherine Piper)
View of the mummies and coffins room (Photo: Katherine Piper)

Beyond the dedicated ancient Egypt and Nubia galleries, there is a small selection of Egyptian objects on display in the Ancient Mediterranean gallery, including some very nice Predynastic vessels, a palm-leaf column capital, and some statuettes of deities. Unfortunately, these all appear as part of thematic displays about local and shared traditions in the ancient Mediterranean, and there is no information given about where the objects come from or their date, which is a shame because the gallery is otherwise very thought-provoking.

Stone and ceramic Predynastic vessels on display in the Ancient Mediterranean gallery (Photo: Katherine Piper)
Stone and ceramic Predynastic vessels on display in the Ancient Mediterranean gallery (Photo: Katherine Piper)

The Nubian Room

The Nubian Room contains artefacts which the Glyptoteket received in return for sponsoring excavations, namely those of Francis Llewellyn Griffith of Oxford University at Kawa between 1929 and 1932, and those of John Garstang of Liverpool University at Meroë between 1909 and 1912. The objects on display include some fine statues and several rose granite stelae from the temple of Taharqa at Kawa, including some which, according to the wonderfully passive-aggressive label, “were not packed with sufficient care … and arrived in bits and pieces” and had to be restored. The labelling in this room is very good, with epigraphic drawings and explanations provided for each stelae, archival photos of the sites, along with biographies of Griffith and Garstang.

Granite statue of Taharqa bearing an offering table, Kawa, c. 690 – 664 BCE (Photo: Katherine Piper)
Granite statue of Taharqa bearing an offering table, Kawa, c. 690 – 664 BC (Photo: Katherine Piper)

From the Nubian room, you can wander into the Classical sculpture galleries, which will take you all around the rest of the floor. And from there, well … the Glyptoteket isn’t really big enough to get lost in, but you should give it a good try. You might be surprised at what you find in there!

Nile Scribes’ Insider Tips
    • Admission is free on Tuesdays, but on other days a standard adult entry costs 115DKK (c. £14/US$18/€15.50). Entry is free for children under the age of 18.
    • Lockers and coat-hanging rails are available to use free of charge in the basement.
    • The Glyptoteket opens their roof terrace during fine weather, and affords a pleasant view of the church towers and palaces of the old city centre – though be prepared for screams coming from the rollercoasters at the Tivoli Gardens amusement park nearby!
    • There is also a small Egyptian collection in the Nationalmuseet (National Museum of Denmark) less than five minutes’ walk away, including mummies and some very fine statuary.

Katherine Piper holds a B.A. and M.A. in Egyptian Archaeology from University College London and studied Egyptology at the University of Birmingham. She has been a volunteer for the Egypt Exploration Society since 2012 and was a mission member of the South Asasif Conservation Project from 2013 to 2018. You can find her on Twitter at @katieglyph

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