New Egyptian galleries to open in Kansas City

Thursday, May 6, 2010 | 4:37 p.m. CDT; updated 8:52 a.m. CDT, Friday, May 7, 2010

KANSAS CITY — King Tut, the popular Egyptian boy king whose traveling tomb lured gangbuster museum crowds two decades ago, is once again touring the country.

But Egypt lovers who can't make a trip to Denver or New York and don't want to pay nearly $30 to see treasures from King Tutankhamun's burial site have another option. Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art now boasts its own permanent — and free — ancient Egyptian coffin and funeral objects.

On May 8, the Nelson-Atkins will begin displaying the 2,300-year-old coffin and other antiquities of noblewoman Meretites in its Egyptian Galleries, the new centerpiece of the museum's refurbished Ancient Art Galleries.

Meretites' intricately detailed 7-foot inner coffin is among the first thing visitors see upon entering the Egyptian gallery, which was revamped from a former cloak room during the $1.7 million renovation. The subtle lighting, dark marble and treasure-laden walls evoke the feeling of a tomb without being somber or frightening.

That's the point, said Robert Cohon, curator of art of the ancient world at the Nelson-Atkins. Cohon, who guided the two-year renovation for the Ancient Art Galleries, has a particular audience in mind for the new galleries.

"We want children to come in here and want to know more," Cohon said. They will see the inner coffin painted with a huge golden-faced, blue-haired Meretites, as well as the myriad Egyptian gods and goddesses there for her journey into the afterworld.

Think magic, spirits and history.

"Egyptian art has been a surreptitious pleasure for so many," Cohon said. "This may also be a child's first exposure to death."

And it aims to be presented in a way that is both wondrous, educational and full of clues about life in Egypt and about Meretites herself.

In addition to the detailed inner and outer coffins, the Meretites collection, which originated in middle Egypt and dates to 350 B.C., also includes more than 300 ushebtis — figurines of all the workers Meretites would need in the beyond.

The mummy of Meretites, whose names means "beloved by her father," is not in the collection. But mummyphiles, take heart. The Nelson-Atkins' new display includes another mummy, acquired from Emory University and displayed coyly around the corner from Meretites' coffin.

The Egyptian Galleries leads into the refurbished gallery of ancient art, which includes several signature pieces from the Nelson-Atkins' collection, some refurbished, all now displayed with purpose.

The room is flanked at one end by the limestone statue of Ra-wer from 2560-2460 B.C. Look closely for a tiny hand on the nobleman's inner calf, indicating the long-lost presence of an adjoining child.

Nearby is a Syrian stonework from about 884 B.C. that once hung in the Mercantile Library in St. Louis. It features a deity tending a tree, all wings and muscles.

"A god fruitifying the earth," Cohon said. "Schwarzenegger on steroids."

But much of the surely will be on the Egyptian Galleries and the Meretites collection, bought from an art dealer in 2007 in Germany for an undisclosed — but reported seven-figure — sum.

The purchase has not been disputed by the Egyptian government, which has been seeking the return of thousands of its antiquities, many now held in museums around the world.

Meretites will likely remain in Kansas City then, where she is sure to gain admirers — young and old.

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Dale Parker May 18, 2010 | 5:50 a.m.

What an awesome idea for children in the Missouri/Kansas areas. Do you know how long the exhibit will last?

Dale Parker - Columbia, MO

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