The Allure Of Saint Louis Art Museum’s Egyptian Collection

“If you take a random poll of people walking by your office and ask them, ‘What’s the first thing comes to mind when you think of Egypt?’ many are going to say, ‘the pyramids,’” says Lisa Çakmak, associate curator of ancient art at the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM). Çakmak has been hard at work the past two years planning the reinstallation of the museum’s Egyptian galleries, and incorporating new digital elements and additional artifacts. Her hope is that visitors will better understand how pyramids, and other generalized depictions of Egypt, fit within the country’s vast history.

Below, she shares what makes the museum’s galleries different from other regional arts institutions; SLAM’s quest to collect Egyptian artifacts; and her aspirations for the future of the galleries, which involve a unique merging of art and science.

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What prompted the reinstallation? 

In preparation for the excavations of the East building, that entire half of the museum had to be deinstalled, including the Egyptian collection. The one collection that can’t go off view for a significant amount of time is Egypt, because it’s popular with visitors and it is one of the most requested tours. People always ask where the mummies are. So one of my colleagues gave up two of his galleries in the decorative arts section, and Egypt moved over there. That was only meant to be a temporary solution. After the East Building opened, I thought, “Now would be a great time to focus on Egypt and really find it a permanent home in the gallery.”

You said the Egyptian galleries are highly sought-after at the museum. What makes the collection distinct compared to other Egyptian collections?

What’s really remarkable about SLAM is that we are fortunate to have three mummies on view. SLAM owns one, and two are on loan from the Mildred Lane Kemper Museum at Washington University in St. Louis. I’m so grateful for that, because it allows us to present three mummies, from very different time periods, in one place—which, is unusual. That’s one of the things that I’m most excited about for this new space: visitors will really be able to explore how mummification changes through time and just how different the three mummies “look” inside.

The mummies on view include one that dates to the New Kingdom, around 1300 BC; one that dates to the third intermediate period around 900-800 BC; and one that dates to the Ptolemaic period, around 300 BC. We often learn in school that the brain was always removed with a hook through the nose, but what’s remarkable is that one of the mummies still has the brain intact. It shrank because it’s completely dried out, but it’s visible on the CT scan. So it shows us that mummification was a process that developed and changed over millennia.

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That’s amazing. Can you also tell me about the new digital components being added to the galleries? 

We had all three mummies CT scanned at the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology, and the new interactive digital screen will have  all of the CT scan data preloaded. People can explore each mummy, virtually unwrap it and go through the various layers. It’s really neat to be able to see inside the mummy. And it’s very obvious from the decoration of the containers or the coffins that each one is very different—you can date them to their respective eras based on the decoration and mummification techniques. We can also see the way each body was preserved and treated.

Before, people weren’t able to explore the mummies at the same level of detail as just a picture of an X-ray. Another interactive digital screen presents a timeline of images depicting well-known monuments or objects that people might be familiar with from Egypt.

What are some other fun, exciting and educational things that you can see coming out of this reinstallation? 

One thing that came out of the mummy scanning project that really excited me is the marriage between art and science. I’m hoping I can incorporate that more into my gallery talks, scholarship and programs associated with Egypt. When I worked with the team of radiologists conducting the scans, it dawned on us that we do very similar work with completely different training. I’m trained to look at objects, visually analyze them and draw conclusions. A radiologist looks at a picture of a human body and does a very similar thing.

That got me thinking about how in this day and age, there’s a big push for STEM programs—but I will root for the humanities until my dying breath. I think there may be ways to use the Egyptian collection to attract new visitors who are more drawn to science, and allow them to really engage with the collection in a way that I don’t think we were able to do before.

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