Special Display

Hijinks with the Sphinx Egypt-Related Pop Culture Display

Coming in October

Although Egyptologists spend most of their time surrounded by Egyptian objects that are thousands of years old, some Egyptologists, and that would include Penn Museum curators David Silverman (Curator-in-charge), Jennifer Wegner (Associate Curator) and Josef Wegner (Associate Curator), like to surround themselves with Egyptian objects called kitsch. They are not quite so old, but are inspired by ancient Egypt. The material in this small special display, focusing on sphinx-related objects, is drawn from the rather vast personal collections of the Penn Museum curators and includes all manner of Egypt-related pop culture!

A Love of All Things Ancient Egyptian

Egyptomania refers to our modern fascination with ancient Egypt. For centuries, the lure of ancient Egypt has inspired artists, architects, authors, designers and decorators. Interest in Egyptian motifs, however, began much earlier, and other ancient cultures were influenced by Egyptian designs. By Roman times, wealthy citizens often decorated their villas with Egyptianizing elements.

Interest in ancient Egypt soared during the Napoleonic era when scientists, draughtsmen, and artists accompanied Napoleon to Egypt and recorded their what they saw. Their publication of this fascinating civilization began a first period of Egyptian Revival, which influenced art, architecture, minor arts, music and other areas of culture. Shortly thereafter in 1822, Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone (discovered in 1799 by Napoleon's troops). Then he and other scholars began to translate this language of ancient Egypt that had remained a mystery for over 1500 years.

Serious archaeological work in Egypt had begun during the latter part of the Victorian era and is typified by the work of W.M. Flinders Petrie who was active in Egypt from 1880-1928. He presented the Museum with the granite Sphinx in 1913 because of its long financial support of his Egyptian archaeological projects. Not long after, the West again took a strong interest in Egypt when Howard Carter discovered the tomb of King Tut in 1922. It ushered in a second Egyptian Revival — furniture, clothing, jewelry, housewares, mausoleums, buildings, and more. Ancient Egypt was all the rage. Hollywood helped fuel the fire for all things Egyptian with a series of films set in ancient Egypt including The Mummy (1933), The Egyptian (1954), Land of the Pharaohs (1955), and of course, the Egyptian epic of all times the 1963 Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The Mummy (1992), Stargate (1994) and The Scorpion King (2002) continue to bring ancient Egypt to a new set of moviegoers.

Toward the end of the 20th Century and then also in the beginning of the 21st, the American tours of the King Tut Exhibits ushered in more Egyptomania. This time, it took hold over pop culture and all sorts of Egyptian kitsch appeared in innumerable forms — toys, pillows, lamps, vases, cookie jars, clothing, linens, clocks, tissue boxes, etc.

Egyptianizing elements can also be seen in the architecture of downtown Philadelphia in the Wanamaker's building (now Macy's), the Egyptian Hall in the Masonic Temple on Broad Street, on the facade of 508-510 Walnut Street and even the pyramid-shaped top of the BNY Mellon building (which houses the Pyramid Club).