Excavating the collection

Walters: The museum's first curator of ancient art to specialize in Egyptology is finding unsuspected treasures.

March 01, 2002|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN ARTS WRITER

There's not a shovel in sight. No picks, no tape measures. No carefully dug trenches with scientists intently peering at the earth. But at the Walters Art Museum, an excavation of sorts is under way.

Like an archaeologist on a dig in rarely visited territory, Regine Schulz is combing the exhibition cases at the Walters and exploring its storage vaults. She's examining hundreds of Egyptian antiquities, from 3-inch bronzes to large stone reliefs. She's gently uncovering them and eyeing them closely.

And she's making remarkable discoveries:

A dark red siltstone relief, considered lovely but unimportant, now is showcased because it depicts a "Black Pharaoh," one of the Meroitic rulers of Upper Nubia, among the most important ancient African civilizations.

A 2-inch figure of a god, once thought to be made of silver, in reality is covered in electrum, a natural metal more valuable than gold.

Bowls once thought to be unexceptional Egyptian vessels turn out to be a gift from King Seti I, the father of Ramses the Great, to his vizier Paser.

The Walters has long been known for its medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. Its Greek and Roman collections are among the best in the nation. And its more than 1,500 artifacts from ancient Egypt are, collectively, surpassed in the United States only by the collections of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

And while Schulz's discoveries won't cause the Walters' Egyptian collections to leapfrog out of fourth position to first or even third, they'll likely add luster to the museum's reputation and give scholars and museum-goers much to discuss.

"It's like opening a candy store," says Walters director Gary Vikan. "The Met, Boston and Brooklyn - they are huge compared to us. They have whole Egyptian departments. They send excavations to Egypt. We are very small to have such a great treasure, and we are just discovering how good it is."

Schulz is the first curator of ancient art at the Walters to specialize in Egyptology. She came to Baltimore last fall from Germany, where she retains her professorship at Munich University; she also heads the Egyptology committee of the International Council of Museums, a worldwide organization with 30,000 members.

She arrived at the Walters only weeks before the museum unveiled a $24 million renovation project, which included the reinstallation of its Egyptian galleries. Before Schulz, the only person to catalog the museum's Egyptian collections was German scholar Georg Steindorff - and that was in the late 1940s. (Other Egyptologists have studied its collections, but none headed the curatorial department of ancient art.)

Now Schulz is, in every sense of the word, excavating the Egyptian collection and finding unsuspected treasures. Even well-established museums - like housekeepers with the best of intentions - by an imperfect eye, misplace, mislabel or misunderstand what they've owned for years and years.

Schulz plans to highlight the Egyptian collection in other ways, as well. At 12:30 p.m. today, she will present a lecture titled "Re and Aton - The Sun Gods of Ancient Egypt" as part of a new series of talks about ancient Egypt. And a show titled "Serapes: The Creation of a God" opens next month and will explore how Egyptian and Hellenistic theologians jointly created a god.

Henry Walters purchased the museum's Egyptian collection during the first third of the 20th century. Rather than searching for and buying his collection one object at a time, Walters bought from dealers, often acquiring whole lots, or groupings, of objects at once. In particular, he purchased from a renowned Armenian art dealer named Kelekian.

What Schulz is discovering is how wise those purchases were.

For example, the Walters owns about 250 bronzes, many of which were purchased simultaneously. Instead of dozens of duplicates - or worse, dozens of unexceptional objects - Schulz has found that many are unusual, in some cases made with precious inlays and marvelous artistry. "Some," she says, "are tiny masterpieces."

"You'd think that somebody buying groups of bronzes would end up with 37 horses and 32 crocodiles and 50 gods, but [Walters] has one of everything, and they are all very good," Vikan says.

"I can't believe that Henry Walters himself was that well-acquainted with Egyptian culture and history," he says. "It was the people he bought from."

In a second-floor gallery, Schulz peers at two small bowls that are connected to each other to form one object. Small and white, the faience vessels once were used to hold rare oils. Since October, they have been part of a display about ordinary Egyptian life. But small hieroglyphics inscribed across the bottom of each tell Schulz that the objects' origins were far from mundane: They were gifts from Seti I, the father of Ramses II, to his most important political adviser.

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