When the ancient working stiff was preparing for his journey into the afterlife, little did he know he would spend decades gathering dust in a musty Wynwood warehouse.
But that's exactly where the Egyptian craftsman dating back to the 25th or 26th Dynasty (808-518 B.C.) was found inside a polychrome wood inner sarcophagus. Silvia Karman Cubiñá, the Bass Museum's executive director and chief curator, identified the remains of the overlooked mummy, which had never been publicly displayed since its acquisition by the institution in 1979.
The liberated mummy is on view as part of the newly inaugurated Egyptian Gallery at the Bass, which also features a modest collection of rare artifacts in the permanent display that marks the only space of its kind in Florida.
Egyptian Gallery: Ongoing. Bass Museum of Art, 2121 Park Ave., Miami Beach; 305-673-7530; bassmuseum.org. Wednesday through Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
The exhibit also showcases the Bass mummy's outer sarcophagus, a child's sarcophagus, and several stellar examples of Egyptian statuary, canopic jars, stela fragments, and pottery. Housed in a 500-square-foot space on the museum's first floor, the exhibit includes 14 objects of Egyptian antiquity dating as far back as 2700 B.C. Some of the items come from the museum's own collection, long-term loans from the Lowe Art Museum and the Brooklyn Museum, and private collections. A gift of an uncommon child's sarcophagus was donated to the Bass by the estate of the late Dan Paul, a prominent local attorney who was one of the original drafters of the Dade County Charter in 1957.
"When I first saw the mummy, I realized it was a great opportunity for the public of all ages to enjoy it and to use these rare antiquities to attract people to the museum, where we could ground contemporary art with an education of the art of the past," says Cubiñá, who organized the permanent exhibit. "In the past, for anyone interested in experiencing these beautiful and rare Egyptian objects or see a mummy, you would have to travel out of state."
As part of the museum's latest exhibit, the Bass has also organized a series of workshops and lectures through its educational program in order to appeal to a broader audience interested archaeology and history.
For the project, Cubiñá enlisted Dr. Edward Bleiberg — curator of Egyptian, classical, and ancient Middle Eastern art at the Brooklyn Museum — as a consultant and to research and interpret the extensive hieroglyphic paintings on the sarcophagus, which gleams as if freshly painted.
Not unlike most Egyptian mummies, the Bass mummy is cloaked in mystery. Last year, Cubiñá had it sent to the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Aventura, where a CT scan revealed it was a male who died at 30, suffered from severe curvature of the spine and arthritis, and had a broken pelvis, which might have been the cause of death.
The mummy's teeth are in surprisingly good condition, flashing a spectral grin in an x-ray that is part of the exhibit. In life, the man measured between 63 and 69 inches tall and is thought to have been a skilled craftsman who spent his days engaged in physical labor, according to the wall text.
He is displayed in a glass enclosure at the rear of the gallery and is beautifully wrapped in strips of blue linen with pale-blue stitching that still maintains its vibrant color and partially covers his face. The linen wrappings associated the departed directly with the Egyptian god Osiris, whose dismembered body was bound and magically reconstituted by Isis.
The anonymous worker's face was caved in by tomb robbers searching for jewels thought to have been hidden in the mummy's wrappings. His shriveled cadaver appears closer in size to a middle school student, although the man would have been above average height for an Egyptian of his era.
The Bass mummy himself was not a member of the nobility but rather a blue-collar Djau or Rahotep who scraped together enough piasters for a spiffy coffin and burial.
Like most Egyptians who could afford it, the Bass mummy sought to travel to the next world in a coffin decorated to look like Osiris, the king of the afterworld. The sarcophagus's purpose was to protect and transport the transformed spirit of the corpse with the sun god on his nightly pilgrimage to the netherworld.
The Bass mummy's desire to live forever in paradise must have been powerful. His stunning sarcophagus doesn't appear as if it was snagged on layaway or bartered for at an old-fangled Egyptian flea market.
The head of the coffin is regally covered with an image of a scarab beetle, representing the final form the sun takes in the next world as it is reborn into our world at the beginning of each day. The casket also bears numerous images of falcon gods, who represent another form the sun takes while traveling between both realms.
Also on display are images and symbols of the preparations the ancient Egyptians preoccupied themselves with to enter on their final journey, including representations of food stuffs and other items they would need to sustain them through infinity. They include the rare figure of a Shabti, a worker drone the size of a Popsicle stick, usually buried with the Egyptians to help them micromanage eternity.
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At the Bass, this eye-opening show reveals the mysterious rituals, beliefs, and culture of a civilization that still rivets the imagination through its esoteric customs.
Unfortunately, some bling-craving pharaohphiles or Tut freaks might leave the Bass feeling a bit E-gypped after experiencing the modest exhibit. Don't expect sensational gold-covered coffins or regal masks of the ancient kings and queens of Egypt. Instead, these are the types of artifacts that continue inspiring the inner Indiana Jones or armchair archaeologist in most of us and have always fueled curiosity about an enigmatic lost culture. It's well worth a visit. And on May 16, the museum will offer a free family day, including "Walk Like an Egyptian" and mummy-naming contests.