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Pharoahs and Queens: California's Mummy Invasion

Something unusual---even peculiar---is happening in our California museums while we are sleeping. Egyptian Pharaohs and Gods are quietly taking over the prime gallery space in one museum after another. King Tut's Return at LACMA has been drawing record crowds since it's opening almost two months ago, turning it into a cash cow for the museum, though not necessarily enhancing it's reputation.

Meanwhile, the Bowers Museum, a much smaller but very feisty and adventurous institution located in Santa Ana, has pulled yet another surprise exhibition out of it's smart hat, this time: Mummies from the British Museum. It consists of 140 funeral objects, including 14 mummies and coffins, masks and statues, ritual amulets and golden jewelry. Altogether, they tell the fascinating story of how the ancient Egyptians imagined and celebrated life after death, depicted in the many artworks as a series of elaborate rituals. It's the second exhibition that the Bowers has been able to organize in collaboration with the British Museum, which has the largest collection of ancient Egyptian art outside of Egypt. I saw this exhibition a year ago in London, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was scheduled to travel to Santa Ana, of all places. It's definitely worth your time to venture down there to the Bowers Museum to stroll through this exhibition, which skillfully combines serious scholarship with elements of showmanship, not the other way around---as done, unfortunately, by LACMA with The King Tut Commercial Extravaganza.

But that is not the end of the Egyptian invasion into California. Come October 15, the de Young Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park will open its new facilities, designed by celebrated Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, best known for the building of the Tate Modern in London. Among the Egyptian Pharaohs, Queen Hatshepsut cuts an especially enigmatic figure as the only female to have become a Pharaoh, which happened upon the death of her husband Pharaoh Thutmose II. For almost 20 years in the 15th Century BC, she ruled the fundamentally patriarchal society, and her many portraits depict her with a false beard strapped to her face. Her rule also coincided with an unprecedented period of artistic flourishing, which is precisely the subject of this exhibition, with its more than 260 objects, borrowed from major museums around the world. After San Francisco, this high-profile exhibition will travel to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Do you want to know where the King Tut Roadshow is headed after the curtain goes down at LACMA? It goes on the road to distinctly second tier museums: in Ft. Lauderdale at the Museum of Art, then to the Field Museum in Chicago and the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. I think our friends in San Francisco got a much better deal.

Meanwhile, here in L.A., the Getty Trust made the surprising announcement of their new museum director, Michael Brand, a 47 year-old native of Australia, who's currently the director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, a respected but not necessarily stellar institution. The press release emphasizes Mr. Brand's experience as a fundraiser, which seems shouldn't be a priority for the Getty, the world's richest museum. Another surprise is the fact that Mr. Brand's professional expertise lies in the area of Indian Art, which has never been the subject of the Getty collection or their exhibitions. Barry Munitz, President of the Getty Trust, is quoted by the New York Times as saying that this new appointment presents the possibility for the museum to focus on the art and culture of Asia and Latin America. If you can make sense of this, please let me know. Meanwhile, I can hear Mr. Getty turning in his grave.

Mummies from the British Museum
Bowers Museum
Through April, 2007
2002 North Main Street
Santa Ana
Telephone: 714-567-3600

Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh
de Young Museum
Golden Gate Park
San Francisco
October 15, 2005-February 5, 2006
Telephone: 415-863-3330

King Tut Returns
LACMA
Through November 15
Telephone: 323-857-6000

All images courtesy of the Bowers Museum

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