The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon
Why We Love Atlanta
Jonathan Knott: THE MICHAEL C. CARLOS MUSEUM AT EMORY UNIVERSITY
Whenever discussing the things I love about Atlanta, one place I always include is the Michael C. Carlos Museum located on the Emory University campus in Decatur. Though it's smaller than the High Museum of Art and features artifacts rather than general collections of fine art works, in many ways I prefer it. I visit it frequently, sometimes just to look again at the familiar pieces on permanent display, though there are often spectacular new additions and temporary exhibits.
One such recent temporary exhibit was the Nippur flood tablet added on loan to the already impressive Assyrian permanent exhibit. It’s a 3,500 year-old piece of stone that has the Sumerian version of their flood myth written in tiny but nearly perfect cuneiform, juxtaposed with an enormous stone relief of a 9-foot-tall winged Djinn from the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (itself part of the permanent display).
There are many ancient civilizations with a great flood myth of some sort, from the one in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh to Ducalion's flood in ancient Greece to the story of Noah's Ark from the Bible, as well as similar stories from India and from the Native Americans, to name a few. One of the oldest but most recently discovered accounts is found on the Nippur tablet, which was retrieved from the ruins of the Babylonian city of Nippur by archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania in the 19th century. Written in Sumerian, it dates back to the 17th century B.C.E. and contains an account of the gods planning to destroy the earth with a great flood. The hero is an immortal man named Utnapashi, who builds a boat to rescue his family and two of every animal (sound familiar?). The part that's translated on the wall next to the tablet reads "... A flood will I send which will affect all of mankind at once. But seek thou deliverance before the flood breaks forth, for over all living beings, however many there are, will I bring annihilation, destruction, ruin. Take wood and pitch and build a large ship! ... take into it ... the animals of the field, the birds of the air and the reptiles, two of each ... and the family ....”
Though the museum has sections devoted to artifacts from Asia, Central and South America, Africa, and other places around the world, I find myself most often in the area that displays pieces from Greece, Rome, Egypt and the regions of the fertile crescent once known as Assyria, Mesopotamia and Persia. Looking at a bill of lading written in cuneiform or a necklace worn by an Egyptian princess or a barnacle encrusted shipment of lamps found in a 3,000-year-old shipwreck gives me a deep sense of delight and wonder that I never grow tired of. As long as such collections exist and are accessible, I can't imagine ever being bored at the Carlos Museum.
The Carlos is best known for its Egyptian exhibit, which contains an impressive display of mummies. While the museum dates back to 1876, when it was located on the original college campus in Oxford, Georgia, its current building on the Emory campus wasn't erected until 1985 (with a number of name and size changes in between). There were Egyptian artifacts on display much of that time, but there was no world-class collection until prominent Atlanta businessman Michael C. Carlos started donating large amounts of money in 1993, which allowed the museum (now named after him) in 1999 to purchase a huge collection of 145 artifacts that had been stored in the Niagara Museum and Daredevil Hall of Fame in Ontario, Canada, for 130 years. Emory paid two million dollars for the mummies to Canadian businessman William Jamieson who had bought them from the Niagara Falls museum.
This collection included a mummy that had been tentatively identified in Canada as an Egyptian pharaoh, one that researchers from the Carlos Museum, using X-ray and computer tomography (CT) imaging technology, verified as Ramesses I, grandfather to Ramesses II, who is best known in the Judeo-Christian tradition as Pharoah in the Bible story of Moses. I saw the mummy on display, and it was an experience I'll never forget. I remember hearing people gasp when they walked into the separate room where it was displayed and hearing them warn others on the way out to brace themselves. And it WAS a shock to see … and hear … it. Even in a glass case, it seemed to hum, as if it were on a different cosmic wavelength from the other, lesser mummies.
The Carlos kept that important find only a short time before the University contacted Dr. Zahi Hawass of Cairo and had him come and claim the mummy of the pharaoh and take it back to its native country. It was returned on October 24, 2003, and placed in the Egyptian museum in Luxor.
Dr. Hawass, a world-renowned archaeologist and Director General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of the Arab Republic of Egypt, was so pleased by this gesture that he subsequently unveiled his touring exhibit called "Tutankhamen and the Rise and Fall of the Pharoahs" (known popularly as the King Tut Exhibit) in Atlanta as its first stop in the United States, at the Civic Center, with lots of promotion for the Carlos and the city in general that helped to put Atlanta’s Carlos Museum on an international map.
Zahi Hawass also presented a lecture at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, which I attended much to my delight. The theatre’s exotic Egyptian/Middle Eastern architecture and interior design may have been one reason for selecting it as the venue for this event. Dr. Hawass at the time was something of a rock star among the world's archaeologists. He had his own History Channel show and commanded high lecture fees, so this appearance was no small event. He was every bit the larger-than-life character he appeared to be on TV, captivating the crowd with tense stories of exploration and wonder mixed with perfectly timed jokes and humorous anecdotes that brought many explosions of laughter. I enjoyed it immensely, as well as the subsequent attention paid to our city.
Other touring exhibits that I’ve seen at the Carlos include drawings from the incomparable master Albrecht Durer. The museum hosted as well a visit from Tibetan Buddhist monks in which the public could watch them work painstakingly on mandalas made of painted sand that they then disassembled, removing and pouring the sand into a nearby stream, thus returning the medium to the elements in a gesture conceived as a prayer.
Upcoming exhibitions include a showing of First Folio Shakespeare. While it’s always worth checking their website to see what’s currently happening or coming soon, the permanent displays warrant a visit anytime and often. It’s a delightful place to spend an afternoon, and yet another reason to love Atlanta.
Go here to read an article about Ramesses I: The Search for the Lost Pharoah
Current exhibitions include
August 22, 2015 – January 3, 2016: The Waters and the Wild: Alen MacWeeney Photographs of Ireland
March 7, 2015 - May 29, 2016: Spider Woman to Horned Serpent: Creation and Creativity in Native North American Art
See more details of current exhibitions at http://carlos.emory.edu/exhibitions/current-exhibitions
Upcoming exhibitions include
October 10, 2015 - January 3, 2016: Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art from the Diker Collection
March 19 – November 27, 2016: Doorway to an Enlightened World: The Tibetan Shrine from the Alica S. Kandell Collection
November 7 - December 7, 2016: The First Folio: The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare
See more details of upcoming exhibitions at
Copyright 2015, Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.