How A Pair Of Sandals Makes An Ancient Queen 'A Presence' In A Kansas City Exhibition | KCUR

How A Pair Of Sandals Makes An Ancient Queen 'A Presence' In A Kansas City Exhibition

Nov 7, 2019

There's a bit of Indiana Jones in everyone, which is why people continue to be fascinated by ancient Egyptians and their tombs, says Julián Zugazagoitia, the Director and CEO of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

That, he says, and "we all search for immortality in some way or another."

At its core, Zugazagoitia says, Egyptian art is about preserving the "life presence" of a person. Egyptians believed that for the soul to live in the other world, the person needed to have her depiction in sculpture form.

It's been 25 years since Zugazagoitia visited Egypt and witnessed a struggle to preserve one such tomb, that of Queen Nefertari, for future generations.

"It's a long relationship that I've had with this important lady, and I think she propelled my career in many ways," he says.

People in Kansas City can get to know her too, when the Nelson-Atkins unveils the exhibition "Queen Nefertari: Eternal Egypt" next week.

Nefertari was one of Ramesses II's wives, perhaps his favorite, Zugazagoitia says. She died young, but because Ramesses II was one of the most important and long-ruling pharaohs of what’s now referred to as the "New Kingdom of Egypt," Nefertari had the most excellent tomb and was spoken about long after her untimely death.

Hers is called the Sistine Chapel of Ancient Egypt.

In the 1990s, Zugazagoitia was working on a project with the Getty Conservation Institute when he realized that the tomb was only one part of this human story. He suggested focusing on who Nefertari was rather than the scientific treatment of her remains and the tomb.

"And that led to an exhibition that I curated 25 years ago," he says.

Julian Zugazagoitia (right) visiting Queen Nefertari's tomb in the 1990s near the start of his career.
Credit Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Nobody really knows much, however, about Nefertari's personal story. 

In some long-ago time, before the discovery of her tomb in 1904, looters stole most everything of value, so her tomb did not include items that might have been personally important to her.

But Zugazagoitia says research shows that women had much more agency during that time period than we generally think. They could own land and bring cases to court, so it can be inferred that she was probably fairly powerful.

Still, the most personal relics that lasted into our millennia are the queen's size 9 sandals. Zugazagoitia says they are very simple, not gilded or decorated in an elaborate manner.

"Those sandals have imprints of someone having worn them. So you think: that is a presence. So, it brings to life someone that was there, someone who was not very different from you and I," he says.

Queen Nefertari's sandals, Valley of the Queens, New Kingdom, 19th Dynasty, 1279-1213 B.C.E.
Credit Museo Egizio, Turin

The few personal objects that remained from her tomb are among 230 works of art in this exhibition drawn from 40,000 in the collection of the Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy. The Nelson is adding fresh technology, including a film produced by a video game company, Ubisoft, that shows a historical rendering of ancient Egypt.

The juxtaposition of 3,000-year-old artifacts and today’s technology might not gel without a powerful story, but this exhibition has that. In addition to viewing artifacts, visitors will be able to virtually follow the 1904 journey of discovering Nefertari's tomb in the Valley of the Queens. This sort of archaeological exploration is still happening and new tombs are still being discovered, but the video shows the challenges these scientists faced more than 100 years ago.

And even farther back than that, the exhibition tells the story of the people who lived in a village, Deir el-Medina, by the Nile who were charged with creating the tombs.

These people, the Egyptians thought, were imbued with the power to grant pharaohs and their court eternal life. And, bonus, the villagers’ jobs bought them the right — even as working-class people — to have tombs as well. And with those tombs, eternal life.

"Queen Nefertari: Ancient Egypt" opens on Friday, November 15 and is up through March 29, 2020 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak, Kansas City, Missouri 64111. Tickets $18.

Julián Zugazagoitia spoke with KCUR on a recent edition of Central Standard. Listen to the full conversation here.

Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter at @AnneKniggendorf.