After generations tucked into a small room on the first floor of Gilman Hall, The Johns Hopkins University's archaeological collection has emerged from seclusion.
Ancient sculptures, pottery, jewelry, weapons and tools from the Americas to the Middle East will now get their moment in a mix of sun and cool museum light that illuminates an expanded new display space after an $85 million renovation. The collection marked its opening day Sunday with lectures, lunch and a cocktail reception, and with a new, more dignified name: The Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum.
"Up until a few years ago we called ourselves a collection," Betsy M. Bryan, director of the museum and Alexander Badawy professor of Egyptian art and archaeology, told a morning gathering that opened the day's celebrations. "Now we feel confident in calling ourselves a museum."
The collection — including roughly 8,000 objects, plus more than 2,000 on loan from the Eton College Myers Collection in England — spans thousands of years of history. The oldest artifacts mark the Egyptian Neolithic period of 4,000 B.C.E.; the most recent is a wooden comb from colonial Africa, perhaps only several centuries old.
Not so long ago the collection was housed in a room a fraction of the size of the new space. The door was kept open during visiting hours, but it wasn't very inviting, said Bryan, who in an interview described the old space as "claustrophobic and unattractive. … Even when it was open most people didn't pay much notice."
Today, visitors to Gilman's first floor will find a new indoor space where there was once a closed outdoor courtyard that has been enclosed with a skylight as part of a three-year renovation of the building. There, artifacts are displayed in a glass perimeter surrounding a room that will double as a classroom; it will be open to museum visitors for morning and early afternoon hours.
The difference from the old collection space, Bryan said, is "night and day."
A stroll past the hallway displays unfolds in an array of masks used in Egyptian funeral rituals, glass bottles, ceramics with geometric designs, figures in black granite, slate palettes used to grind cosmetics, and greenish-blue figurines made from the earliest known synthetic material, faience.
Inside, one wall is covered with slabs of Roman marble dating to the 1st century B.C.E. to the 4th or 5th century C.E. The fragments of funeral monuments are inscribed in Latin. Below the wall display, three marble urns still contain the remains of the dead.
One glass case contains an Egyptian mummy, the remains of a woman, probably in her 40s, who died around 400 to 300 B.C.E. That was a gift from Goucher College in the 1980s, but above the mummy's head hang two items that were part of the original collection established in the 19th century: two wooden Egyptian disks probably dating from the first century C.E. featuring images of a god part human, part crocodile.
These would have been placed on the heads of mummified crocodiles, Bryan said, that were in turn given as offerings to the crocodile gods in exchange for protection of the human dead in the next life.
"The Egyptian religion is always about you give something and you get something back," Bryan said.
The space puts the material in a new light literally and figuratively, said Sanchita Balachandran, the curator. Some artifacts have been reassembled from pieces found in different places during the renovations, and others have been given a good cleaning.
"This new visibility has finally shown the university there is so much to be explored," she said. "Hopefully, this is the beginning of the collection being used to its fullest."
She said the better display and the new work space will allow scholars and students from several disciplines to work on the materials.
For instance, several pieces in a display of terra cotta figurines called tanagras were put back together only recently from dozens of shards. Some are dated to Greece in the 4th century B.C.E., but others appear to be copies made much later. Which are which?
"We need the art historians, the archaeologists, the technical scientists — we need to bring in all these people to find out what these mysterious things are," Balachandran said.