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A Glimpse of the Afterlife

Museum of Science Exhibit Features Treasures from Ancient Egypt

By Sonja A. Sharpe

staff Writer

Museum of Science

The Quest for Immortality

Nov. 20, 2002-Mar. 30, 2003, Sat-Wed 9 a.m. -5 p.m., Thu- Fri 9 a.m.-9 p.m.


Starting this Wednesday, the Museum of Science in Boston will host a major international exhibition of ancient Egyptian artifacts, called The Quest for Immortality. Sponsored by Eastern Bank, this exhibition features the largest selection of ancient Egyptian artifacts ever lent by Egypt for display in North America. Some of the objects in The Quest for Immortality have never been on public display or shown outside of Egypt. The exhibit presents a fascinating journey to ancient Egypt, and should definitely not be missed.

The Quest for Immortality offers over 100 treasures from ancient Egypt, with a focus on ancient Egyptian religious beliefs and their vision of the afterlife. The artifacts are therefore dedicated to showing not how the Egyptians lived their daily lives, but instead to what they believed happened to them after death. This exhibit of ancient Egyptian artifacts is different from one that might be seen in an art museum, as there is an emphasis not just on the objects themselves, but also on the science behind the archeology.

The exhibit includes statues of varying sizes, masks, coffins, furniture, relief sculptures, and wonderful gold jewelry, which is displayed towards the end of the exhibit. Many of the objects on display in the museum are not hidden behind glass, but are openly displayed so that patrons can inspect them up close. The exhibit is also not overly crowded with objects, and everything is displayed with adequate space and detailed descriptions, so patrons can clearly understand the importance of each object without becoming overwhelmed with information.

Artifacts not to be missed in The Quest for Immortality are the boat from the tomb of Amenhotep II, an eight-foot wooden model of the pharaoh’s river ship, the canopic chest of Queen Nedjmet, which once held her internal organs, the granite lid of the massive sarcophagus of Nitocris, the sculpture of the god Osiris, wrapped as a mummy with a gold and electrum headdress and shown with his head lifted in the process of resurrecting, and the many beautiful gold and jeweled items discovered in the royal tombs at Tanis, including the gold funerary mask of the courtier Wenudjebauendjed, which is exquisite.

The highlight of the exhibit, though, is a full-scale walk-through reconstruction of a pharaoh’s burial chamber. This above all is the reason to visit The Quest for Immortality. The chamber was reconstructed based on the burial chamber in the tomb of the New Kingdom pharaoh Thutmose III. The room allows visitors to understand firsthand the ancient Egyptians beliefs and rituals of the afterlife, based on the journey that a deceased pharaoh takes from death to immortality.

The walls of the burial chamber display a facsimile of the earliest known complete painting of a sacred funerary text called the Amduat. The Amduat was an illustrated guide to the afterlife, containing spells and instructions, all intended to direct the deceased pharaoh toward the sunrise, which symbolized immortal rebirth to the ancient Egyptians. Thutmose was the first pharaoh to be buried with the Amduat.

The mural covers the walls in the burial chamber, effectively transporting the visitor back to ancient Egypt at the time of the pharaoh’s death. The Amduat is written in hieroglyphics and accompanied by images of deities, demons, and the blessed dead of the afterlife. The text is divided into the twelve hours of the night, symbolizing the journey of the sun from dusk until dawn, and visitors are able to experience the perils and triumphs that the sun encounters along the way. The sun’s journey from dusk until dawn symbolizes the journey toward eternal life sought by all Egyptians, and it ends at sunrise with the deceased pharaoh’s resurrection as the sun god Re.

The audio tour available for the exhibit, although narrated a bit pompously by Jeremy Irons, is extraordinarily informative and adds a more detailed understanding of the burial chamber beyond the descriptions posted on the plaques. The audio tour is less useful for the rest of the exhibit, as all of the artifacts on display are well documented and their importance to the ancient Egyptians is described in detail with plaques.

There are other fascinating parts of the exhibit, aside from the artifacts and the burial chamber. There is a museum staff member on hand to describe how the ancient Egyptians made paper from the papyrus plant, including examples of the plant and pieces of papyrus paper made both by the museum and by specialty companies in Egypt today. There is also a continuously running 10-minute documentary, The Quest for Immortality in Ancient Egypt, which depicts the insights of the archaeologists involved in unlocking ancient Egypt’s treasures.

Also extremely interesting is the mummy on display in the Mummification section of the exhibit. The mummy was transported to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in September 2002, where a CAT scan was performed on the body. The results of the scan are on display and help to demonstrate just one of the areas where state-of-the-art science is used to uncover the mysteries of ancient cultures.

Aside from the exhibit itself, the museum also offers an Omni movie and a new planetarium show to compliment the exhibit. Skip the pretentiously acted and uninspired Omni movie, Mysteries of Egypt, and instead watch the planetarium show, Stars of the Pharaohs, where the planetarium excels at replicating the Egyptian sky as it looked 4,000 years ago. If visitors would rather not shell out extra cash for either of these special shows, then the video inside the exhibit itself, The Quest for Immortality in Ancient Egypt, is a must. It is certainly more informative than the Omni movie.

The Museum of Science is celebrating the opening of The Quest for Immortality by offering a free sunrise tour of the exhibit on opening day, to highlight the exhibit’s theme of the pharaohs’ preparation for the afterlife and their rebirth with the sun god at dawn. The museum will open at 6:42 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 20, and the first 1,000 patrons will be able to see the exhibit free of charge until 8:45 a.m.

The Quest for Immortality will run until March 30, 2003. The exhibit will be open Saturday - Wednesday from 9 a.m. till 5 p.m. and Thursday - Friday from 9 a.m. till 9 p.m. Entry into the exhibit is by timed ticket entry. Tickets can be purchased for $20 in person at the Museum of Science, by phone at 617-723-2500, or online at < quest>. The audio guide (highly recommended) is an extra $5.