Toiling in the blazing sun and using crude pulleys, ropes, rollers, and massive blocks of stone, slaves struggled for decades to build the great pyramids of Egypt outside the ancient capital city of Memphis. Today, workers from England and America are making use of considerably more advanced devices -- electric lifts, acrylic paints, Plexiglas panels, electronic temperature monitors, and more -- to re-create that ancient culture in the air-conditioned basement of The Pyramid in modern-day Memphis, Tennessee.
They've had just a few weeks to do it, but "everything will be ready, I'm sure of it," says Brantley Ellzey, an exhibit designer working with Wonders: The International Cultural Series, which is presenting "Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art from the British Museum," opening here June 28th.
The exhibit of 144 objects, culled from the largest and most important collection of Egyptian artifacts outside of Cairo, will present more than 35 centuries of Nile culture, from the Old Kingdom of 3500 B.C. to the Roman occupation of Egypt in the fourth century A.D. Objects on display range from exquisitely crafted gold jewelry to carved wooden sarcophagus lids to massive sculptures of lions and pharaohs.
Organized by the American Federation of Arts and the British Museum, the exhibit will visit eight American cities during its three-year tour, and moving such valuable objects around takes special precautions.
"They're not so fragile that they can't travel," says Nigel Strudwick, assistant keeper with the British Museum, who is in Memphis with his staff to supervise the installation. "But they are all incredibly valuable, and they have to be carefully monitored, especially the wooden and bronze objects, because they react so easily to damp."
Moving such treasures from the arid climate of Egypt to the less-than-arid climate of Memphis would seem to be a problem, but Strudwick points out, "These objects were originally made in a hot, basically dry environment, but they've been in the British Museum now for anywhere from 150 to 200 years, and they're used to the British temperature and humidity."
Another challenge is deciding how to showcase such a broad span of culture. Other Wonders shows focused on a particular historical figure, such as Napoleon or Catherine the Great, or a specific event, such as the sinking of the Titanic. Even the Ramesses the Great exhibition, which kicked off the Wonders Series in 1989, embraced the life and times of just one of Egypt's many rulers.
"This show is different from Ramesses because this has more emphasis on art and the progression of art through the centuries," says Nona Allen, Wonders' public relations manager. "So you'll see Early Kingdom art as opposed to the Ptolemaic Period, and you'll see how the art progresses, and even how the mediums they use have changed."
Visitors will descend into the exhibition past brightly painted murals which create the sensation they are entering an ancient tomb. The first artifact they encounter -- to set the stage for the show -- is a life-size (and lifelike) 7,000-pound red granite carving of a lion from the New Kingdom reign of Amenhotep III. After that, they pass through a series of 13 galleries arranged chronologically. The objects themselves are showcased in simple Plexiglas cases, but the galleries are dramatically lighted, and many of them are adorned with elaborate murals replicating the elaborate art found inside Egyptian tombs.
Highlights of the show include a massive quartzite sculpture of the head of Amenhotep III, a delicate calcite carving of a royal woman from the Fourth Dynasty, a brilliantly colored molded-glass perfume bottle in the form of a "Bolti-fish" (a symbol of renewal and rebirth to the ancient Egyptians), magnificent ebony statuettes of servants and minor officials that are so perfectly carved viewers can admire their muscles and toenails, and painted papyrus panels showing judgment scenes from The Book of the Dead.
Because of the emphasis on art, one added feature of this exhibition that hasn't been a part of previous Wonders shows will be the "Imagination Station" activity center for children. Here, adjacent to one of the galleries, kids can try to assemble a large pyramid-shaped puzzle, make and decorate their own paper crowns (both Old Kingdom and New Kingdom versions), string together bead necklaces, make hieroglyphic rubbings off linoleum blocks, and even create their own Egyptian-style cartouche.
"It's set up for families, so parents can participate with their children," says Elisabeth Childress, a local artist and teacher who designed many of the murals in the exhibit and created many of the activities here. "It really does reinforce what they'll see in the museum exhibit. They can see the different styles of crowns and jewelry in the galleries, and they can come in here and try to approximate them. Or they can just make anything they want."
Childress even tested the projects with classes from different schools, and the kids liked everything they tried.
"It's really been fun," she says. "It's just one of those things that comes together."
Masterworks of Ancient Art from the British Museum
June 28th-October 21st, The Pyramid
Open daily 9 a.m. Last entry is 8 p.m., Tickets are sold for a specific date and time.
Prices: $14 for adults, $13 for seniors (60+), $10 for college/military with I.D., $6 for youths (5-17).
For tickets, call Ticketmaster at (901) 743-2787, visit the Eternal Egypt Web site (www.eternalegypt.org), or stop by The Pyramid box office at the north entrance during exhibition hours.