The oldest relic at the Michael C. Carlos Museum is a called a Mother Figurine. The nude with simple facial features, rounded breasts and thighs stands a smidge above three inches. She’s made of gypsum alabaster and dates to Mesopotamia (Western Asia) circa 6500–6000 B.C. By comparison, the museum, which turns 100 this year, is a mere babe.
The Carlos’ 12,000 square feet of gallery space at Emory University houses one of the finest collections of ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern art in the Southeast and is the only conservation lab in the region. It also has space dedicated to Africa, the art of the Americas, Greek and Roman art, Asian art and works on paper from the Renaissance to today.
More than 75,000 guests visit each year. They come from the metro area, across the Southeast and abroad. Still, the museum’s history and mission remain a mystery to many.
The Carlos we know today began in 1876 with Methodists in Oxford, Georgia. Many early faculty members were missionaries who’d bring home treasures from their travels. The museum was formally established on Emory’s Atlanta campus in 1919, hence this year’s centennial.
Today, 95 percent of its 25,000-piece collection is in storage, but visit the Native North American gallery and you’ll see shell necklaces and pottery created in the late 20th century. Elsewhere, you’ll see cinerary urns and glass vessels from ancient Rome. The Egyptian gallery is the resting place for four prized human mummies (one of which is the oldest in the Western Hemisphere). Mummified remains of a dog, a cat and a falcon reside here too.
The tradition of using art to understand the wider world began in Renaissance Europe (14th–17th centuries) with Wunderkammer, or cabinets of curiosities, which were repositories for encyclopedic collections of wondrous and exotic objects. Royal families and aristocrats cherished them. The vision for the Carlos’ treasures changed through the years as its directors did. Say hello to insects and natural history, for example, and the mummies.
The first mummy moved in in 1921, when professor William Arthur Shelton led an excavation through Egypt and the Ancient Near East. The first purchase: an Old Kingdom (third millennium B.C.) mummy from the sacred site of Abydos, Egypt. Thus began the antiquity collection.
Perry W. Fattig, curator from 1926 to 1953, collected and documented Georgia’s insect fauna, and the museum’s entomology collection grew. Biologist Woolford B. Baker added butterflies, a fossil invertebrate, a wasp nest and fossilized sharks’ teeth. And the natural collection benefited.
The archaeology department grew — adding a mummified sacred hawk, a glass perfume bottle and a bronze statue of Osiris — when Immanuel Ben-Dor of the Israel Department of Antiquities joined Emory as a professor of biblical archaeology and Semitics in 1958. And what started as an embryonic collection in 1967, when the art history department began building an archive of prints and photography, has become a vast range of works on paper, from 18th-century prints by William Hogarth to 20th-century works by Andy Warhol, Mildred Thompson and Pablo Picasso, and 21st-century commissions by Atlanta artist Fahamu Pecou.
In the 1950s and ’60s, professor Woolford B. Baker prioritized community outreach by inviting schools to organize class outings at the museum. His practice of sending grade-schoolers home with mummy gauze clippings fired young imaginations and brought antiquity to life. The museum’s commitment to early education has grown into a collaboration with the Atlanta Public Schools’ Cultural Experience Project.
“The experience of coming face-to-face with old objects that you’ve been studying in school can be incredibly transformative for young people,” says Amanda Hellman, Carlos’ curator of African art. “We try to encourage return visits by sending all children home with a guest pass for their parents. And because so few of us are native to Atlanta, the first time many parents hear about the museum may be the result of their child’s field trip.”
Giving back to the community is a major goal for centennial events scheduled through year’s end — including 100 days of free admission; a live three-day reading of The Iliad (September 13–15); and an author event featuring Rick Riordan (September 24), touring behind The Tyrant’s Tomb, the latest in his Trials of Apollo series. Visitors are invited to check out SmARTy Packs: in-gallery activity bags created to demystify Ancient Egypt, Africa and Greece through hands-on activities.
The museum’s track record of inspiring lifelong learners was probably what inspired a centennial gift, the Senusret Collection from the Georges Ricard Foundation. It includes some 1,500 objects — including Late Period mummy sets (from the late seventh century), gilded funerary masks, a bronze statuette and a collection of ancient glass. The Senusret is one of the most extensive collections of ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern artwork ever donated to a U.S. museum.
When Through a Glass, Darkly: Allegory and Faith in Netherlandish Prints From Lucas van Leyden to Rembrandt opens August 31 for a three-month run, it will show how printmakers addressed the most fundamental issues connecting the human and the divine.
The Carlos is as indispensable a resource to Emory art history majors as it is to students pursuing degrees in medicine, theology, dance or chemistry. But, according to Hellman, its value is greater than the sum of its parts.
“Early museums were about reverence and social control,” she says. “They were established to educate the public and help to create more ideal citizens. We take education seriously at the Carlos, as do all museums. But the dual mission of preserving the integrity of objects and making them accessible to the public is about knowing the unknowable world, and seeing the ways in which the past, present and future are connected.”