The Carlos Museum, from Tibet to Niagara Falls and Beyond

By the time Maxwell Anderson left the directorship of the Carlos Museum in 1995, he had brought the museum into the Internet age and had built the museum staff to twenty-two full-time and twenty part-time professionals. One of those professionals, Catherine Howett Smith—who had grown up on the Emory campus as the daughter of art history professor John Howett, and who had earned B.A. and M.A. degrees from Emory—agreed to serve as acting director while Emory searched for a new director.

The search took two years, but meanwhile Howett Smith guided an initiative that would leave Emory’s stamp on the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games. This was the renovation of part of the old Sears building on Ponce de Leon Avenue (at that time dubbed City Hall East) for the installation of works by self-taught African American artists. Called “Souls Grown Deep,” the exhibit was paired with a showing of Thornton Dial’s art at the Carlos as a signature part of the Cultural Olympiad.

In 1997, the two-year search for the new director led at last to the Bayley Art Museum at the University of Virginia and Anthony Hirschel, who had earned a reputation for understanding what Emory provost Billy Frye called “the dual nature of the [university] museum as both an arm of the academic community and a public museum.”

Screen Shot 2019-06-12 at 1.27.43 PM
Anthony Hirschel

When Hirschel arrived at Emory in the spring of 1997, he immediately began planning an exhibition of artwork about the Buddha that built on some of his experience at Virginia. The aim was to have the exhibit up in time for Commencement in 1998, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama would be the keynote speaker. The exhibit included a rare nineteenth-century copy of The Blue Beryl, borrowed from monks in the Buryatia region of Russia, and exhibited for the first time in the West.

Screen Shot 2019-06-12 at 1.36.41 PM
Catalog from 1998 exhibition of Tibetan medical paintings. From Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

The exhibition was also the occasion for the first sand mandala at Emory — a kind of performance art whose week-long completion has become an annual tradition during Emory–Tibet Week in March.

Screen Shot 2019-06-12 at 1.35.06 PM
Monks from Drepung Loseling Monastery create a sand mandala at the Carlos Museum.

The next year, in 1999, the reputation of Emory for housing mummies gained renewed stature when Hirschel seized on an opportunity in Canada. The Niagara Falls Museum, which had opened almost a decade before the founding of Emory College, was going out of business and selling off its collections, which in some ways resembled those of the Emory museum before 1982—stuffed animals and birds, a collection of eggs, a humpback whale skeleton, mastodon bones, and relics from China and Japan. Peter Lacovara, the curator of Egyptian collections at the Carlos at the time, called Hirschel’s attention to the Niagara museum’s ten Egyptian mummies and scores of Egyptian artifacts, many of which had been brought from Egypt in the 1850s. They were now available at the fire sale price of $2 million.

With seven days to raise the money, Emory turned to the Atlanta community for help. Carlos advisory board chairman James Miller and his wife, Karina, put up half the funds, and donors ranging from schoolchildren to Emory staff members contributed another $750,000—enough to secure a commitment from the museum to sell all of the collection to Emory.

Among the mummies that arrived on campus later that year was one that had lain in the Niagara Falls museum since 1860. The profile of the mummy resembled those of two others resting in a museum in Cairo, Egypt—Seti I and Ramesses II. These were the son and grandson of Ramesses I, whose mummy had gone missing. Could this mummy at the Carlos be the missing Ramesses I? Off to Emory Hospital went the patient for CT scans, X-rays, and radiocarbon dating. Experts from Egypt arrived to study the remains. In the end, while the evidence proved inconclusive, the head of Egyptian Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, pronounced that he felt certain that the mummy had royal bones; whether those were the bones of Ramesses or not, it was impossible to say with a hundred percent certainty.

In 2003, to the delight of many and the consternation of a few, Emory officials decided that after a period on view in the Carlos Museum, the mummy would return to Egypt, where he now lies in state in the Luxor Museum. Hawass said, “Children in Atlanta will learn that, once upon a time, there was a king at the museum there.”

Beyond the Deer and the Pharaoh

By the time Ramesses, or whoever he was, made his way back to the Middle East, Tony Hirschel had decamped, in 2001, to the Middle West as director of the Indianapolis Art Museum. In the fall of 2002 the new director, Bonnie Speed, arrived from Dallas, where she had been director of the Trammell and Margaret Crow Collection of Asian Art. She brought stellar marketing chops along with a graduate degree in art history and experience as a printmaker, designer, and businesswoman.

During the past seventeen years, the full-time museum staff has grown to number thirty-eight, a modest size considering the level of activity inside and outside the walls of the museum. Some seventy-five to eighty thousand visitors come through the portals annually, including twenty-five thousand Atlanta school children and six thousand Emory students. For some exhibitions, the numbers reach 160,000, and for the 2009 Tut exhibition that the Carlos helped organize at the Atlanta Civic Center, the numbers were stratospheric.

Curators and educators at the museum continue their collaborations with Emory departments, including environmental studies and chemistry as well as the usual suspects. Exhibits and programs make the ancient world relevant to moderns, whether that means a showing of Romare Beardon’s twentieth-century prints that use Homer’s Odyssey to reflect on the Great Migration of African Americans, or an exhibition of Fahamou Pecou’s contemporary art, which pulls from history and traditions in its own way. The workhorse attitude of the talented team pulling in harness together has brought the Carlos Museum to a place of distinction that in every way fulfills the dreams of a hundred years ago.

Over the next quarter-century, we can expect that successors to the Candlers, Sheltons, and Bakers will continue to open new doors of discovery, and we can hope that the university and the public will reward those efforts with the resources and recognition they so richly deserve.

Girl and statue

Gary S. Hauk

 

Advertisements

One thought on “The Carlos Museum, from Tibet to Niagara Falls and Beyond”

  1. Neat series, Gary. Thanks for sharing it. Have you ever read Andrew Dietz’ The Last Folk Hero? It tells quite a tale about the Olympics and the Souls Grown Deep exhibition…

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s