People seem to want to climb right into the display cases at the Walters Art Gallery's great new time machine, "Egypt's Golden Age."
For the show opening today is a celebration of real life in the New Kingdom, letting us see how Egyptians lived 3,000 years ago, what they ate and wore, their furniture and tools and musical instruments, their gardens, their pets, their makeup kits. It is touching in a way the King Tut show never was, because it reminds us that we are connected.
That mallet handle is polished by the hand that wielded it for a lifetime. This broom is dark with skin oils where it was held. Here is a cosmetic ointment spoon fashioned to someone's fancy in the form of a nude girl swimming. There is an ingenious little jewelry box with sliding drawers and hinged lids that still work. And see the plasterer's float that looks like something you could buy at Hechinger's this afternoon, and the artist's palettes with some paints nearly used up and others virtually untouched, and the hair curlers, and the baskets, and the ancient roast duck, the loaves of bread, the raisins, actual raisins . . . raisins!
No wonder the exhibit area has been radically opened, with three walls knocked out: People aren't going to want to leave. They'll stop and gape at lovely details of carving, at ivory-inlaid wood, at delicate jewelry, at the subtle marks of humanity on these things that were bought and used and perhaps cherished, and were certainly no mere ritual funerary facsimiles. One spectacular display of furniture has no glass in front, just a wooden embankment slanting it out of reach. There it is, so close you can breathe on it: the palpable reality of a people gone to dust 50 lifetimes ago.
More than 400 items have been collected here at 600 N. Charles St. from 35 museums in Europe and America (a handful from the Walters itself), with the aid of grants from the City of Baltimore and Martin Marietta Corp. The show covers what is probably the most interesting period in Egypt's long history, from 1558 to 1085 B.C., a prosperous epoch that included the strange episode of Akhenaten, the odd-looking long-headed pharaoh who founded a monotheistic religion and a new city, Amarna.
The New Kingdom, ranging through the 18th, 19th and 20th dynasties, began with the defeat of the Hyksos, nomadic invaders who had ruled the Nile for a century. Under a succession of warrior kings, notably the megalomaniac Rameses II, Egypt spread an empire from Syria to the Sudan, drawing tribute from the Levant, Cyprus, the Aegean and Africa.
"In my brother's land, gold is as plentiful as dust," an Iraqi king wrote one pharaoh. Exotic stones, woods, beasts and spices flooded the country. Foreign influences swept in along with other imports. Decades of prosperity produced a sophisticated urban society of entrepreneurs, professional soldiers, priests and civil servants: the world's first middle class, perhaps. There was time to enjoy life.
And this is the life we sense in the new exhibit, a cosmopolitan society that loved its luxuries and cultivated taste. There is not a lot of gold on display. (One hopes this means the fad for gold -- any gold -- in museum shows has finally passed.) In fact, silver was rarer than gold in the New Kingdom. The beauties here are subtler than either.
At the entrance is a little garden based on a Theban mural, which is reproduced nearby. It contains lotus, papyrus and other plants whose shapes appear over and over in decorations. Next door is a full-scale room from a villa, built jointly by the Walters and the co-sponsoring museums in Boston and Houston. There is also a model of a house and an aerial view of Amarna, where villas sometimes ran to 40 rooms, with indoor plumbing, skylights and rooftop ventilators.
It's the details that stop you: the fine ivory stripes inlaid in an elegant ebony chair; the perfect duck, two millimeters long, inscribed on a seal ring; the ibexes carved in exquisite deep relief in limestone so that every curving plane of their bodies comes to life.
To anyone who has seen the pathetic shreds of ancient basketry dug from Indian tombs, these undamaged woven rush plates and baskets are hard to believe. There is even a bolt of the diaphanous linen that Egyptians wore, and a reproduction of their dress. There are kohl bottles with traces of the dark eyeliner makeup still in them. (The stylized eye outline so common in Egyptian portraits had a religious context and also protected the eye from the glaring sun, as in modern football.) There are tweezers and razors and many-colored glass bottles--the first glass.
Intelligently brief explanations carry the viewers along without stopping them in midstream. For instance, the national game, senet, is described just enough to make sense of the various pieces and their 30-square board. As for the play, we learn that the game evolved into a private contest with fate, Pac-Man in clay: Will I make it to the Afterworld? This is really all we need to know right now. But for those who want to probe further, the gallery stands ready to help. It has expanded its hours (11 to 5 except Mondays) to stay open until 10 Tuesdays. A $2 admission fee is charged.
In fact, the Walters has almost fallen over backward to complete the experience, augmenting the show, which runs until Jan. 2, with such excitements as a hieroglyphics workshop, tours, concerts and lectures, outreach programs on music, archeology, prehistory, mummies and so forth, an Egyptian bazaar featuring reproductions, a dance demonstration, and films ranging from documentaries to the thriller "Sphinx." Also "Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy." More complete you cannot get.