Visual arts Christopher Allen and Public Works
The Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney is not only one of the oldest in Australia but one of the most consistently enjoyable to visit, and it is rather sad to think that it is destined to move, perhaps in the next two or three years, into the new university museum complex that will include the Macleay natural history museum and the university art collection.
A restoration of the Macleay building would in itself be very welcome: it was constructed in 1887 as a fireproof edifice to house the highly flammable Macleay entomological collections, and contemporary photographs show that it was impressive both as an architectural interior and as a science museum before the university, short of space, colonised it with offices and classrooms, eventually relegating the Macleay museum to the attic.
So it will be wonderful to remove all the shanty-like accretions and rediscover the original structure of the Macleay, but it will be essential for the new museum to respect the character of the original building and to resist the inevitable temptation of architects to produce yet another generic modern museum space in which all objects are reduced to a uniform blandness.
All the rooms occupied by the university museums and collections could be considered very inadequate in some respects — at once cramped and quirky — but therein lies part of their charm and interest. The quirkiness of the setting can make us see displays with fresh eyes, but this is the sort of subtlety lost on committees. Even reasonable people, assembled in a committee, tend to lose all flair and imagination and start to use expressions such as “best practice”.
In universities, committees are particularly depressing because they attract the less talented academics and offer an alternative path to advancement to those who have little to offer to scholarship. Such people are by nature predisposed to groupthink and intellectual conformity, and are expert at balancing political correctness with expediency. One particularly dreads the prospect of such a committee overseeing the new combined university museums.
For the moment, though, we can still enjoy the unique experience of the Nicholson, which is a bit like a Tardis in the extraordinary amount that Michael Turner, the collection’s curator, fits into a relatively modest set of rooms. There is, for example, his opening display called 50 Objects, 50 Stories, which takes full advantage of the most curious and even eccentric parts of the collection, from an odd set of medieval bones assembled by an 18th-century antiquarian to several objects that may or may not be forged antiquities.
In the main collection, various areas of strength have been formed during the past few years into a series of small but dense mini-exhibitions: Tombs, Tells and Temples; The Etruscans; Actors, Athletes and Academics; and Aphrodite’s Island. A new exhibition about Pompeii includes the highly entertaining Lego Pompeii, following on from the enormous success of an earlier Lego Colosseum (2012-13) and a Lego Acropolis (2013-14), which subsequently was presented to the Acropolis Museum in Athens, where it is said to be as popular as it was in Sydney.
Turner is particularly good at combining a certain populist appeal with scholarly seriousness; and he understood from the beginning something that would be by definition inaccessible to a committee: that the old-fashioned setting and displays of the museum were an asset. By enhancing these features, indeed, and evoking the Victorian origins of the collection, he has created the impression of an Ali Baba’s cave of riches in which even modest objects become intriguing, the contrary of what happens when objects are separately and clinically laid out in a neutral environment.
This is my only reservation about the restoration of the Egyptian room, in which the white environment and new metal and glass display cases, while often effective enough in themselves, produce a rather jarring contrast with the rest of the museum. If this is a trial of the approach to be adopted in the museum’s eventual new quarters in the Macleay building, it suggests that more thought is required. It may be hard to reproduce the same ambience, but at least some of the new rooms should be designed for density rather than spareness, matching the old wooden display cases with dark walls as in the present installation.
In other respects, Death Magic, the new Egyptian display, is well laid-out, impressive as well as pedagogically effective. It opens with a typically dramatic touch, the head of a young bull suspended in a tank of formaldehyde. The reference is to a passage in Herodotus’s History, of which the whole of Book II constitutes the earliest first-hand account of life in ancient Egypt.
The fifth century BC was very late in the long tradition of Egyptian civilisation, but the information Herodotus records is invaluable. Among other customs, he tells us that a bull’s head would be loaded symbolically with the sins of the people, then cast into the Nile, in the same way the ancient Hebrews would use a goat — the original scapegoat.
The real bull’s head is matched, in the centre of the room, by the biggest and most imposing object in the Nicholson collection, an immense red granite capital from the temple of Bastet — the cat goddess — at Bubastis, carved with the face of Hathor, the cow-goddess. One of the most characteristic and, to a sensibility formed on the anthropomorphic deities of the Greeks, bizarre aspects of Egyptian religion has always been their animal-headed gods. Here, though, Hathor is represented with normal human features except for her rather charming but disconcerting bovine ears.
Herodotus visited this temple, so we are standing before an object that we know to have been examined, 2500 years ago, by the founder of historical writing. He would certainly have noticed the furry little cow’s ears. He was fascinated by the many differences between Greek and Egyptian customs, and among other things gives a detailed account of the procedures for embalming, including the elaborate and expensive treatment of the corpses of the wealthy and the economy versions available to the poor. All forms of mummification involved removing the viscera and drying out the rest of
A BULL’S HEAD WOULD BE LOADED WITH THE SINS OF THE PEOPLE
the body — muscle tissue and skin — and ideally the viscera should be separately preserved in the so-called canopic jars. The brain, however, was considered unimportant, and in any case could not be removed intact without cutting open the skull, so it was scraped out with a hook inserted up through the nose.
The rather gruesome reality of this is brought home to us in another display case, in which we see a dark and dessicated head from two millennia ago, the linen covering still adhering to the skull and traces of whiskers and beard, turned russet by the chemicals used in the embalming, still visible on cheeks and chin. Next to this head is a real human brain in a clear perspex box, a small blade of obsidian — volcanic glass, which has a sharper edge than steel — and a metal hook.
The juxtaposition of these objects makes the process more vividly real; among other things we are confronted with the sheer size of the brain and the difficulty of removing it through such a small orifice and with such an instrument. But above all it brings home to us the fact this head, which we could otherwise glance at carelessly, our attention blunted by habit, was a real person. The head is empty now or filled with tar but once contained a brain like the scientific specimen in front of us; behind these sealed-up eyes were once thoughts, feelings, desires, hopes and fears.
As the individual approached death, and even before, many of those thoughts must have been of the afterlife, for the Egyptians seem to have been, in striking contrast to the Greeks and the Minoans, far more preoccupied with the prospect of life in the next world than with this one. Unlike most traditions that believe in another world beyond the grave, they also thought they would need to retain the use of the body in which they had lived on Earth, and that was why it was imperative to preserve the corpses of the deceased.
Equally important, however, were the journey and trials of the soul in the underworld, which involved charms and magic as well as a moral examination of the life led in this world. This episode is illustrated in the most famous section of the ancient Egyptian Book of the
Dead, known as the weighing of the soul, a motif that appears in Christian tradition too, and most famously in the tympanum of the 12thcentury Romanesque cathedral of St Lazare at Autun in Burgundy.
The Nicholson is fortunate in possessing an illustration of this crucial episode, not on papyrus but as painted on the side of a late coffin from AD50-AD150, witness to the survival of these beliefs through three centuries of Hellenistic Greek rule, another of Roman occupation and even into a period when Christianity was beginning to spread through the empire.
The narrative reads from left to right, beginning with three protective serpents equipped with arms and legs, holding apotropaic scorpions, then proceeding to the embalming of the body by the jackal-headed Anubis. In the centre is the weighing of the heart, presided over by Anubis and Toth, the scribe-god with the head of an ibis, while Ammut, the hippopotamus-like monster, waits to devour the heart if it proves to be unjust. Finally, and assuming that the occupant of the coffin has passed the test, we see him led by Anubis before the throne of Osiris, god of the underworld and of new life, accompanied by his sister-wife Isis and their hawk-headed son Horus.
Osiris himself, whose own violent death and rebirth make him the patron deity of mummification, is almost always represented wrapped in bandages, and the dead man standing before him is shown here already in his sarcophagus, just like the two impressive standing sarcophaguses in the middle of the room. With their rigid form, covered in magic charms, scarabs and the images of the gods, and their wide-open eyes staring into the darkness, they are images of a religious tradition that, for all its elaborate rituals and even ethical refinement, remains fundamentally attached to an egoistic conception of the self.
But even today this remains a fundamental test of the sophistication of a religious tradition: the crudest ones imagine an afterlife of corporeal gratification, while the most refined, whatever they think of life after death, recognise that the self and all its appetites are destined for dissolution.
The face of Hathor, the cow-goddess, carved into a granite block, left; two standing sarcophaguses, above; and the bull’s head, below left