Vis­ual arts Christo­pher Allen and Public Works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Death Magic Ni­chol­son Mu­seum, Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney, un­til fur­ther no­tice Christo­pher Allen

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


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

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