The 1904 St Louis Exposition, otherwise grandly known as the World’s Fair, attracted all the great and the good in America and for their entertainment every part of the British Empire, as well as most of the countries of Europe and their colonies, sent an exhibit.
One of the more interesting displays was that provided by the Egyptian government, who sent over a complete and newly excavated tomb chapel. The structure in quesiton had been discovered late in the previous century at Saqqara, but it was not excavated until 1903, when it was identified as belonging to Kapure, a treasury official and administrator of high rank who lived about 4,300 years ago under Egypt’s Old Kingdom. Visitors to the Exposition marvelled at the brightness and freshness of the pigments that still decorated the walls and intricate carvings of the tomb.
The end of a fair is always a dispiriting time. Cardboard boxes and plastic bags litter the ground; tradesmen pack up their stock and discard unsold “exhibition goods”, those cheap knick-knacks which sell like hot cakes in the excitement of the show; exhibitors fill bins with leaflets that no one wants and runaround pressing pens and balloons on complete strangers in the adjoining stalls.
With the exception of the plastic bags, the end of the St Louis Exposition was no different. Tradesmen and exhibitors packed away their wares and the gentlemen in the Egyptian stand contemplated without enthusiasm the task of packing up thirty carved stone blocks, including a five-ton false door.
They were just about to start work when a deprecating cough disturbed them. John Wannamaker, a wealthy Phildelphia department store owner, had been keeping an eye on the Egyptian artifacts and kindly wished to save them the bother of packing up, if only they would sell the tomb chapel to him.
The Egyptian exhibitors looked at the mountain of packing cases on the one hand and the fistful of dollar bills Mr Wannamaker was offering them on the other, and made up their minds on the spot. They departed, minus one tomb chapel and Mr Wannamaker summoned his workmen and resumed the packing, only this time the destination was the University of Pennsylvania Museum.
There, for many years, Kapure’s tomb chapel stood on display, one of only four complete tomb chapels in the New World. Alas, however, the University of Pennsylvania’s museum was not as hot and dry as Saqqara and the chapel was far too large to shut up in a glass case where the temperature could be controlled. Water percolated up through the ancient stones and, rather like what is happening in Egypt today, salts crystallised on their surface, causing the paint to flake off and the carved reliefs to crumble.
In1926 an attempt at preservation was made by installing a wooden framework, but half a century later this was proving inadequate. The lower courses of stone were crumbling under the weight of the upper courses and in 1981 the chapel was in such a dangerous condition that it was closed to the public – and that is how it has remained since then while the university collected funds and experts.
Recently the University of Pennsylvania has begun work on restoring and conserving the chapel. Private enterprise, in the form of Conservation Technical ASsociates of Connecticut, has been called in to undertake the first part of the project, which involves analysing samples of the stone and the paint in order to determine the best method of proceeding. In November 1996 about one third of the chapel was treated in order to stablise the paint and after a period for observation, the rest of the chapel will also be treated.
Last year the treated wall was dismantled and taken to Dallas Museum of Art where, with 134 other objects, it was put on display as part of a travelling exhibition entitled “Searching for Ancient Egypt”. In due course the exhibition will move on to Denver, Seattle, Omaha and Honolulu – Kapure’s ka is no doubt already regretting that he didn’t include a surf board among the provisions depicted on the walls of his tomb.
Meanwhile visitors to the University of Pennsylvania Museum can still tour the other Egyptian artifacts on display. These include a large red granite sphinx of Rameses II, weighing twelve tons, and other objects from the festival palace of Merneptah at Memphis. This was excavated in 1915 by Clarence Fischer, who led an expedition sponsored by the university. The sphinx, the third largest in the world, was buried up to the shoulders when found, so only the head and face are eroded, the remainder is in pristine condition.
In its upper galleries the museum boasts a curious seated statue of Rameses II. In the first place, on the left side of the pharaoh’s throne the sculptor has made a mistake in the hieroglyphics, reversing the position of two symbols and having to cut them out and recarve them. Secondly the style of the statue makes it almost certain that it is a Middle Kingdom statue usurped by Rameses. If so, this isn’t the first statue Rameses took over!
The University of Pennsylvania Museum has almost 40,000 objects in its collection, most of them the product of the many seasons of excavation it has undertaken in Egypt.
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