16 April 2007

"Temples & Tombs" at the NC Museum of Art, reflecting past and present

A very brief post, as we've had power (and wind and rain) problems here for the last 24 hours, with still some additional weather possible today...

©The North Carolina Museum of Art

The North Carolina Museum of Art is opening their exhibit of "Temples & Tombs", an exhibit of some of the greatest Egyptian treasures on loan from The British Museum. It opens today and runs through July 8. It features more than 85 items for examination, although I don't know if any of these are some of the ones that the Egyptian Antiquities want returned to their homeland. Many kudos go to the Raleigh-based Museum, who has recently (or so it seems, anyway) stepped up the quality level of their exhibitions, most recently with the vastly popular "Monet in Normandy" which was so well-attended the last two weeks of its showing that attendance was on a pre-purchased, 'open 24 hours to accommodate everybody' schedule only. Contrary to what seems to be a long-established opinion about us here, there is a desire to support the arts and higher culture. The fact that the NC Museum of Art is right by the State Fairgrounds just helps people find it easier on MapQuest or Google Earth, that's all.

It's strange: after all the trips I've made to London, I never made it over to this collection at the British Museum there. It was always on my 'to do' list, as well is their Roman antiquities. I know this small showing in Raleigh is just but a fraction of what the main museum has back in the UK, but this exhibition may press upon me to go and finally do that 'Great Museum Trip' I've been threatening for years now.

This exhibit will be the first one of its matter that I've seen really in years, and it's been a long time coming for me. I'm certainly a fan of Egyptian works, and I was supremely lucky to visit there in 2001. I thought I had been 'blown away' when I had toured The Coliseum, The Pantheon, and The Vatican just two months earlier in Italy. In Egypt, I was simply awestruck by the remaining architectural and sculptural wonders still just open...sometimes at the side of the road, overgrown by weeds at some...for review and appreciation.

(right) Abandoned, sun-worn, and vandalized statues in the rural countryside, Egypt, 2001.

Just like in Rome, in some places there is a statue or historical landmark of something on every corner, or so it seemed. Some things, like seeing one of King Tutankhamun's golden funeral masks (behind glass, in the non air-conditioned Egyptian Museum in Cairo) or actually climbing up on one of The Great Pyramids, still seem like out-of-body experiences.

(left) The Great Pyramid, from the first or second row, 2001. The stone at the very foreground is the actual height of that entire row and I believe all the ones above it as well. I'm 5'11" and it came up to my shoulder level thereabouts. I'm an architectural buff so this pic also shows how even after all this time, the angles are still about as perfect as any engineer could hope. Until you actually see this monument in person, you can't really comprehend just how massive it is.

The tour itself...I was one of 10 American women, led by an equally more 'unique to Egypt' female, unmarried, Christian guide from Egypt but educated in Britain...was thoroughly one of the best I shall ever go on and even included a cruise down The Nile.

If sometimes here I sound a bit hesitant to return to 'the birthplace of civilisation' (I remember that phrase on countless billboards across the country, in English no less), it's not because of the wonderful people, or architecture, or substantial history, but instead of the abject poverty and in the lack of safety (not to mention respect) for women without escorts. Whereas we would stay in what can only be described as luxury while in our hotels, the moment we crossed the street we would be surrounded by children wanting to do anything for us for money...all the while standing on city streets in feet that clearly had not worn shoes in years, if ever at all. Many of these children and their families live in Cities of the Dead.

One of Cairo's Cities of the Dead, 2001.

The first few days of this was disconcerting; by the last few days of the trip, the guilt when trying to buy souvenirs in shops when hungry and non-school-attending children waited at the front doors was defeating. I may or may not be 'The Ugly American', but that was the first time I've ever felt like one. I've traveled the world over, but despite Egypt's many charms, I don't know if I'll ever go back there as it's truly been the only place I truly felt unsafe without a guide...and we even had escorts at all times with us. And while I desperately try and separate the two events, I'm sure being there on that fateful September 11 (and then having to scramble my way out, in any way I could), somehow taints my memory.

I don't know who my money ultimately goes to when I go see one of these exhibits; I suspect little, if any, can ever hope to make it back to the people of Egypt. Perhaps wrongly, perhaps rightly, I will go see this exhibit and support the wonderful Museum of Art in bringing it here. It's a shame, though, so few of the people attending will ever see what I experienced first hand: that the 'Birthplace of Civilisation' needs support for its people to be civilised and successful once more.

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