I went to Chicago a couple of weeks ago to tour the Egyptian
museum galleries and to see the "Pharaohs Of The Sun"
show of Amarna period loot. I planned to hit three galleries in
three days, which is a fine idea if you've been in training for
that kind of extravaganza. As usual, a complete failure to
stretch beforehand left me footsore and weary at the end of every
day, but I did see some very nice things.
Sue, sketching Egyptian coffins, mummies, the
Memphis Marketplace, Star Wars, the Adler Planetarium
Bird watching, Meresamun, Tutankhamun, The
Book Of The Dead, a butcher, a potter, old friends, owls,
Pharaohs Of The Sun
Statue commentary, Tutmose on a bier,
Description De L'Egypt
Being an absolutely pointless comparison of
lemonades served in a selection of world-class museums
The Field Museum Of Natural History
The Field Museum, located on Chicago's
waterfront, is open from 9 to 5 daily. And so I was there from 9
to 5. This should tell you something about my fanaticism for
|Sue, the 65 million-year-old T-Rex
with a more recent portrait (background).
When you come in the south entrance, the first thing you see
is Sue. She's a great big Tyrannosaurus Rex (Regina) skeleton
that was recently mounted and put on display. It's the largest
and best preserved specimen yet found, and it's quite lovely.
Getting there early was definitely an asset because as the
morning wore on, it began to rain, and before long the place was
heaving with glassy-eyed pram-pushing parents and their restless
||If you think
that Sue looks scary, know that she is nothing compared
to a child who is hyped on Crank. (Where do they get that
stuff anyway? Are there pushers shuffling in the cold
outside of daycares, offering free samples? One moment
they're little darlings, the next they're Catherine
Wheels, dropping sparks on everything you wish they
can walk all around Sue with a portable cue card which
points out some of the more interesting aspects of the
skeleton you might be apt to miss. That the bump on her
rib is a sign that it had broken and then healed. That
the teeth are serrated, and that some of the holes in the
jaw were for blood vessels.
|While Sue is
great, I spent most of the day in the Egyptian gallery.
You enter a tomb on the ground floor and then go down
into the "burial chambers" in the basement
where the mummies and the bulk of artifacts are kept.
What a lot of nice stuff they have there. I spent three
quarters of an hour drawing the rather tidy wooden coffin
of a man named Nakht who lived in the 1st
Intermediate Period. It sported 2 horizontal registers of
writing in turquoise paint, 4 pairs of vertical
registers, a pair of wadjet eyes looking out at you.
There is nothing like copying
hieroglyphs to improve your penmanship, let me tell you.
There are 17 instances of a seated god (A40) which I have
never been really good at drawing. Until now. Still -- by
the end, I was overheard to mutter "Not another
damned god!" more than once.
Besides improving your
writing, sketching also attracts the curious visitors,
many of whom stop to chat, which is something I really
enjoy as it turns out. A lot of people are quite curious
about the stuff, and while the signage at the Field is outstanding,
there are no fanatics to talk to. So I gladly read the
coffins to anyone who asked -- glossing a bit to cover
the gaps in my knowledge -- and they went away happy. And
I have a copy of a coffin.
More than just coffins
There's a lot more than just coffins. There's one
of Senwosret's wooden boats there. The real thing, as big as
life. Mummified cats. A 1 m3 block of limestone which
you are invited to move with a rope harness. Mummies. Lots of
But the thing I thought was just terrific was the
"Memphis Market". They took a scene from the tomb of
"The Two Brothers" that has about 20 vignettes of a
marketplace. There are people trading figs for pottery. A woman
holding on to her younger sister (?) who asks if she should go
now (???). A policeman with his trained baboon on the lookout for
thieves. It goes on an on. They've reproduced this scene, and
have painted it up in bright colours. Then they've make enlarged
copies of each vignette with its hieroglyphs translated and put
into cartoon speech balloons beside whomever's speaking. There's
lots of well-written text that describes what's going on. And
then nearby, they've got display cases showing the artifacts that
appear in the paintings. Near a scene showing people weighing out
grain, there was a set of real stone weights for you to look at.
Nothing enhances your understanding of the artifacts like a
One of the thing I especially liked about the
text in the Market is that it discussed both the things we know,
and the things we don't know. For example -- there's a scene with
a seated man and a standing nude woman. She is holding a young
girl by the hand. The text actually says that we don't know why
they're naked, but here are a couple of possible reasons. It says
we can't tell what the relationship between the woman and the
girl is (are they sisters? Is the older one her mother? Or
nanny?) Next time you're in a museum, read one of the label cards
and see if it shows as much candor.
When I bought my ticket to the museum, they asked
if I wanted one that would also get me into the "Star
Wars" exhibit. "Star Wars?" I scoffed. "Yes,
please." What the hell. I knew my eyes would need a change
by the end of the day. And so with about 20 minutes before
closing, I raced through an almost deserted exhibit hall of
"Star Wars" junk, and I mean "junk" in the
most reverential sense because it was all junk from the actual
productions. When you stand toe to toe with a model of a star
destroyer, you can rest assured that this was really the one they
used in "The Empire Strikes Back." Nice model; it's
They had Alec Guinness' costume, complete with
light saber. By some creepy coincidence, I saw it on the very day
that Sir Alec died. (Also, I had a snack later -- just as
Guinness himself used to do -- although I suspect this is less of
Now, when you look at all of this stuff, you
can't help but notice how much it looks like the real thing
(let's pretend there really is a "real thing"), but
they still look like props. A model space ship is still a model
because you know that in life they must be very large and heavy,
and are not at all the sorts of things you're likely to find in
the basement of a museum (unless you're in the Smithsonian.)
There was, of course, one exception. Near the
half-way point, you turn a corner, and come face to face with
Yoda. In a bell jar. And it's obviously not a Yoda puppet, or
even a body double; it's the real thing. I say that
because there is no difference between what you see on the screen
and the thing in front of you, under glass. And that makes it
real. Or at least more real than anything else there. Zen masters
could not have set me a better koan to puzzle over as I skimmed
past the rest of the do-dads, leaving via the inevitable gift
After leaving the the Field, I dropped into the
nearby Adler Planetarium to catch a quick sky show. They have a
lovely Zeiss planetarium projector (a Model IV, made in West
Germany. It's dumbbell shaped, like the one that used to be in
the Toronto McLaughlin Planetarium). Accept no substitutes! Don't
be disappointed by another dim Digistar projector that couldn't
light a dome the size of a robin's egg. Zeiss. Mmmm.
Where was I?
Not just now, but then too. I love planetariums,
but every time I visit one, I'm reminded of just how bone
achingly tired I am at that moment. Maybe it's the lure of the
air conditioned darkness, or maybe it's the comfy chairs, but
before the show is out, I find myself dodging a minefield of
|The Chicago skyline seen from the Adler
Planetarium. Off in
the distance, you can see a marina where the boats'
ping against the masts in the wind. How do you take a
of that sound?
The Oriental Institute
The Oriental Institute is on the campus of the
University of Chicago, a short electric train ride south of The
Loop, where I was staying. The campus environs are lovely, and if
you ever have a free Sunday morning, its quiet tree-lined streets
are just the thing. There are gorgeous low rise apartment
buildings on the streets I toured, and even a house designed by
Frank Lloyd Wright thrown in for free.
|A fire escape counter weight...
||... where sparrows were nesting
Arriving early, I had an hour to kill before the
OI opened, and spent some of it wandering around campus. I found
an old iron fire escape ladder with this counterweight attached
to it. There are many like it in Chicago, and I felt I needed a
picture of one. And then I noticed that there were a family of
sparrows living in it, and so I pretended to be a nature
photographer and shot the parents feeding the nestlings.
I had been warned that the Egyptian gallery was
not large, and yet I still managed to spend about 4 hours in its
air conditioned splendor. Armed with my new portrait lens and
absolutely the wrong kind of film, I shot a bunch of slides. Here
are some of the ones I'm at least marginally pleased with.
|This is Meresamun,
a woman with a lovely cartonnage. She really is quite a
looker, and I spent a lot of time trying to get a decent
picture of her that didn't have reflected lights all over
it. It's times like this when you need a friend in a
black shirt who you can strategically position to kill
the reflections. Read more about Meresamun.
be the most famous face from ancient Egypt. Everyone I
have shown it to guesses his identity correctly. Or is it
that most people can only name one pharaoh anyway?
Doesn't matter. This is Tutankhamun, the
young man whose tomb was found intact in 1922.
This is a tiny picture of a
colossal statue. If you go to the museum, be sure to look
on the plinth at his left side. There, you'll find two
small feet which are all that's left of a statue of his
wife, Ankhesenpaamun. Despite the King's overwhelming
size, I was more concerned about his missing wife. How
was she depicted? Was she, like him, striding forward, or
might she have been giving him a sideways look, a quiet
wink? I only hope they managed to find each other in the
Read more about this statue.
secret that I'm a book nut, is it? No thrill compares to
hefting an antique volume: the coloured end papers, the
curve of the binding, thinking about the hands through
which the book has passed...
This is a detail from a papyrus scroll of
the Book Of The Dead. I especially like the snakes which
you can barely see here. The linework is so dark and
crisp you could convince yourself it was made only a few
hundred years ago (it's actually about 2000 years old).
Read more about this scroll.
expect to see anyone I knew when I went to the museum, so
it was great to see these two old friends who have spent
the last year travelling with the Egypt In The Age Of The
Pyramids exhibit. How nice to be able to get up close to
them without competing with hordes of people.
Read about the potter.
Read about the butcher.
This is one of the oddest things I
found: three (hieroglyph) owls on a large limestone
stela. Unlike all of the other birds on the tablet, these
three had discernable, and very individual faces. Who
were these people? Were they the artisans who worked on
the stela, or members of the family for whom it was made?
||This is a
near miss, and I only found that out tonight. When I saw
these two in the gallery, I said -- Didn't we meet in New
York? Or was it Toronto? -- thinking they were in Art In
The Age Of The Pyramids. Well, after thumbing through
both the English and French show catalogues, it looks as
if I was mistaken. Still. They should have been
in the show. Just look at her face.
I showed this picture to a friend
who immediately captioned it: "I'm with
sweetest thing I found: A limestone carving of a fishing
scene. On the left, one fish hides in some plants,
watching another fish, caught in a net, being hauled out
of the water. Neither fish looks terribly happy.
This is quite a nice gallery,
uncluttered with people. My only disappointment was that they did
not have their copy of the Narmer Palette on display (they're
undergoing renovations). You can't be a proper Egyptian gallery
without a Narmer Palette, can you?
The Oriental Institute bookstore
("The Suq") has an impressive (and surprising)
collection of books on Egyptology for sale. I picked up a couple
of that I had been hunting for: James Hock's Middle Egyptian
Grammar, and Dr. A. De Buck's Egyptian Readingbook.
Both paperbacks are hard to score north of the border, which is
ironic (actually "maddening" might be a better word)
since Hock's book is published in Mississauga, an hour's drive
from where I live.
Pharaohs Of The Sun
I hardly know what to say at this point. The show, made up of
artifacts from Egypt, Germany, and the USA, was great. The pieces
were well lit, well labeled, and for the most part, gorgeous. Is
this not the best of all worlds where a person can see two
extraordinary shows of Egyptian art in the same year?
Here are some thoughts about some of the pieces (photos nicked
from the Art Institute's web site):
|This is a
rather nice picture of a bust of Nefertiti, and yet it
doesn't even hold a candle to the real thing, which just
stops you in your tracks. Apparently, it's not finished
yet, but it's hard to imagine what would improve it
(besides a headdress).
After seeing the show, I leafed through the
catalog, and saw pictures of all the things I had just
seen, but like this image here, none of them really
captured the essence of the works. Either the subtlety of
the textures had been lost, or the colours were less
intense, or else the photographer had mysteriously
avoided the obvious angle which would show off the
details that you happened to like best.
At best, looking at
pictures of art is like reading a translation of story.
||In the early
1970s, my grandmother bought a couple of brightly
coloured coffee mugs with some sort of animal on them.
They're classic 70's pop art.
This fish could be early 70's pop art. If
you saw it in a carboard box at a garage sale, would you
even look twice?
I love those coffee mugs,
by the way, and I think this 2300-year-old fish is just
as great. Next time you're at the British Museum in
London, be sure drop by and say hi.
|Akhenaten in yellow
stone. Every time I see this statue, I think:
Tutankhamun. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because most
people can name only one Egyptian pharaoh.
As you might have guessed, this is
a stunner. The surface is highly polished and almost
glows in daylight. You can walk all around this piece,
which is a good thing because then you get to see the arm
at the King's back (you can see a piece of it in the
picture at his right elbow.) Even that fragment is
beautifully crafted, and like the feet beside
Tutankhamun's colossal statue at the Oriental Institute,
I was curious to know who it belonged to. And where that
statue would have stood because the plinth is not
I wish I had a picture of one of the less flashy pieces in the
show: Prince Tutmose on a bier. If you have the Boston
catalog of the show, it's object #15 on page 205. If you don't,
I'll try to describe it: It's 10cm long, made of dark stone. A
boy with shoulder length hair is lying on a lion-footed table.
There is writing on the sides identifying it as the king's son
Tutmose. The ends are decorated with Isis and her sister Nepthys.
A ba bird is perched on his belly. He would have been the older
brother of Amenhotep (Akhenaten). If he hadn't died, the whole
Amarna period might not have happened. It's not a breathtaking
piece, but I like the way it tells the story of a single, sad,
human event amidst the posturing of the colossal works.
I have to tell you a book fanatic's story (it'll be quick). It's
a bit of a walk between the entrance of the Art Institute and the
hall where they had the show. Along the way, you pass through
galleries of armour and silver and all sorts of distracting,
shiny objects. In the middle of one hallway, in a large glass
case, I saw a large desk made of dark wood with an equally large
book lying open on it. I would have passed right by, but I
noticed the picture in the book: It was a colour engraving of an
Egyptian temple. I think my mouth may have actually dropped open
when I realized that this was a volume from Description De
L'Egypt. This is the book maven's book. Published between
1809 and 1826 as a result of Napoleon Bonapart's Egyptian
campaign, this colossal work contains 14 volumes of engravings of
Egyptian architecture and artifacts (and contemporary items),
plus another 9 volumes of memoirs and commentary, and 2 volumnes
of maps. I have a modest reprint of just the architectural
drawings; they're wonderful, but here was the real thing, at full
size (21" x 27")! And it was just sitting there, and
nobody stopped to look but me.
What do you think -- Do books get lonely?
In the bakery lineup (at the Field
Museum): A bearded, balding, corpulent man photographs the
queue with his camcorder.
--Journal Entry, August
Museums are second only to airports for being bad
places to eat when you're actually interested in eating. They're
also neck and neck for being outrageously expensive. Let me give
you an example. When I was at the Field Museum, I bought a
sandwich, an apple, and a bottle of lemonade. Total price: $9.30
USD. That's about $13.40 Canadian. (For my international readers
unfamiliar with Canadian currency and the cost of living here,
that amount of money could feed a family of four for an entire
day if they didn't order alcohol.)
To their credit, it wasn't bad as far as
eat-it-and-beat-it food goes. The bread was at most a day old,
and the lemonade, while not great -- it was your basic mass
produced Snapple kind of product -- was serviceable. But obvious.
It was as if they were afraid you wouldn't know it was lemonade
unless it raised cankers in the first 30 seconds.
Contrast this to the ruinously expensive (£2.60)
glass of lemonade I had at the British Museum in London. You got
less, but it was like drinking lemon water: not sweet, not sour,
just real lemon. In water. Ambrosia, subtle ambrosia.
I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New
York last fall, I'm not even sure they had any lemonade.
Perhaps it's a seasonal thing there. And going back further, I
have nothing but hostile memories of the cafeteria at the
Victoria and Albert Museum (London, spring '97), but at that
point in my life, I think I was still hesitant to spend money on
perfectly good things that would make me feel better instantly.
The Field Museum
Of Natural History
Live view from
the top of the Planetarium
Zeiss Planetarium Projectors
(University of Chicago)
Art Institute Of
Of The Sun Web Site
survey of lemon varieties
information about preparing lemons
information on citrus fruit