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‘Tomb 10A’ lets you look history right in the face

A mummy's head is the focus of the new MFA exhibit. A mummy's head is the focus of the new MFA exhibit. (Museum of Fine Arts)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / October 18, 2009

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There are some things that bring the ancient Egyptians closer to us, and some that make them seem further away. Their religious beliefs, for instance, can be dauntingly arcane. And hieroglyphics, too, are hard to parse. But when Djehutynakht, a governor in Middle Kingdom Egypt, informs us that he has no wish to spend eternity eating his own excrement, I think we can all relate.

There were other things Djehutynakht (pronounced “Je-hooty-knocked’’) was adamant he would rather not do for all time, such as standing on his head. And here again, I’m in utter sympathy: “[T]o be upside down is my detestation,’’ he informs us in a passage of script that can be found on the inside of the outer coffin in which he was buried.

On the other hand, carousing, drinking, and eating were all on his list of activities to look forward to in the hereafter.

There is something very moving about the intensity of the ancient Egyptians’ desire not to be forgotten, not to vanish into dust, and indeed to thrive in the afterlife. The Museum of Fine Arts tries, in its own way, to honor this desire with its excellent new show, “The Secrets of Tomb 10A: Egypt 2000 BC.’’

The museum is also trying to right some historical wrongs, beginning with the desecration of Djehutynakht’s tomb by ancient robbers, which left it in a state of utter chaos. But it may also be making amends for its own neglect: Most of the tomb’s contents, which were recovered by archeologists and brought to Boston almost a century ago, have been left to languish in storage ever since.

“The Secrets of Tomb 10A’’ is a fascinating prototype of the kind of exhibition we are likely to see much more of at major museums in the future. Thanks to steadily rising insurance and transportation costs, loan-heavy shows like the MFA’s recent “Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice’’ are getting more and more difficult to mount.

As a result, museum directors will have to draw on their permanent collections for temporary exhibitions. Curators have been coming under increasing pressure to find new and inventive ways to showcase what they already have.

Given all this, it’s tempting to greet a show like “The Secrets of Tomb 10A’’ with cynicism - just the kind of show that a cash-strapped museum distracted by a costly building project might be expected to mount. Why, if this show is so compelling, have most of its contents been lying around in pieces in the MFA’s vaults for a century?

It’s a fair question. And yet “The Secrets of Tomb 10A’’ tells a fascinating story with objects that may not be uniformly precious but, because of their history, have a charisma all their own. Unlike a lot of Egyptian shows which are often loosely themed grab-bags of unrelated objects, this one has a tight focus, and brings us into the process of discovery and interpretation like few exhibitions of ancient art I’ve seen.

Best of all, from the museum’s point of view, it’s been the catalyst for a major conservation effort.

The show is up for seven months - which is a long time for any show, and perhaps longer than it warrants. But it has a lot to offer.

In essence, it’s a show about a man and his wife, and their preparations for death. The man, Djehutynakht, held considerable local power in Middle Kingdom Egypt. So it’s no surprise that he and his wife (who seems to have died first) were given lavish burials.

They had a tomb to themselves; their bodies were mummified; they had elaborately painted and fastidiously inscribed caskets, each several layers thick and made from imported wood; and the caskets were surrounded with dozens of wooden sculptures representing the wealth, power, and productivity of Djehutynakht’s sizable estate. Every last detail of the burial had religious significance. All of it was sealed off in the tomb with them.

When archeologists discovered the pillaged tomb in 1915, much of its contents had been stolen or hacked apart and strewn across the room.

There are two extremely fine and fascinating pieces in the show, both of which have been valued - and displayed - by the MFA since it received them. One is the famous Bersha coffin (named for the place it was discovered), with its exquisitely painted wooden surfaces - long regarded as the finest Middle Kingdom coffin ever discovered. The other is a beautifully carved and painted procession of four figures - three women and one man. In terms of craftsmanship, it stands out from the dozens of other more rudimentary models of boats, farming, and industrial activity.

But none of the objects has quite as much power to haunt and beguile as the mummified head that has a room almost to itself at the heart of the show (the room, we’re told, has the same proportions as Tomb 10A).

We do not know if it is the head of Djehutynakht or the head of his wife. But even behind glass, with its tattered exterior surface, its pursed lips, closed eyes and painted-on eyebrows, it radiates a kind of calm that is inexpressibly moving.

The head, which had been violently wrenched from the body by ancient tomb robbers, has recently been the subject of a great deal of attention, in the form of advanced computerized tomography, or CT, imaging. This imagery can be seen on an adjacent plasma screen. Some will no doubt be fascinated by it; I personally found it an annoying distraction, and the one major disappointment in an otherwise terrific presentation.

If this show were at the Museum of Science, it would make sense to have the head garlanded with plasma screens and descriptions of how brains were extracted and the bodies prepared for the afterlife. But it’s an art museum, and I wanted to look at this head and feel the force of its haunting immediacy. It’s not, after all, a photograph, it’s not a model, it’s not even a skull; it’s about as close as you can get to an actual human head with an actual expression, and it belonged to a man or a woman who was alive 4,000 years ago.

It’s astonishing, when you think about it, and deeply mysterious. I don’t think the drive to know more and more, so characteristic of our time, actually adds to the experience, and in many ways depletes it.

I am not saying scientific research has no place - it does, and in this case it has uncovered some fascinating information that in some ways adds to the mystery. It can be found, appropriately, in the catalog. But I don’t want plasma screens thrust in my face when I am contemplating death.

Coffins, for Egyptians, were elaborate survival and resurrection systems. A sarcophagus served both as protective shell for the mummified body and the deceased’s new home.

The striking imagery and patterning on the inside of Djehutynakht’s coffin, splendidly presented here, make it an early masterpiece of painting. The museum tactfully provides information to help us interpret and understand it. But it is also possible to lose yourself in its slightly scumbled, gorgeously colored passages of painterly description: the dusty plumage of a pigeon, the plump roundness of white onions, the fine spotting and swooning necks of freshly killed ducks, and so on.

There are many layers to this exhibition, which has been scrupulously prepared by a team led by the MFA’s Rita Freed, Lawrence Berman, Denise Doxey, and Nicholas Picardo. It’s a show about the adventure of discovering the tomb. It’s a show about Egyptian culture - not only religious ritual and funerary rites but daily life, too. And finally, it’s a show that gets you thinking about what we do with material remains that are, in this case, many millennia old: How do we think about them, how do we preserve them, how do we present them?

If this is the kind of intelligent, collection-based, curator-driven show we are going to see more of in the future, I for one won’t be complaining.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com

THE SECRETS OF TOMB 10A: Egypt 2000 BC At: Museum of Fine Arts, through May 16. 617-267-9300. www.mfa.org.

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