The old joke is irresistible.
How do you move a 3,400-year-old, 5,785-pound red granite lion? Very, very, very carefully, of course.
Sculptor-rigger Roger Machin uncrates The Lion of Amenhotep III Reinscribed for Tutankhamun as gently as a new bride unwrapping an heirloom tea set. But with a lot more noise because he's using a power wrench.
The Lion of Amenhotep is a star in Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art From The British Museum, which opens Sept. 21 at the Walters Art Museum. Seven feet long, 3 feet high and, with its crate, weighing 6,300 pounds, the lion is also the heaviest piece in the show.
That's why it will greet museumgoers in the first-floor lobby at the exhibit's entrance: It's too heavy to go on the fourth floor with many of the other monumental sculptures.
Jennifer Renard, a museum spokeswoman, compares the lion to a Lincoln Navigator, which has a curb weight of 5,746 pounds.
"As it's from the British Museum," chides Machin, "you really should be comparing it to a Range Rover."
This is the exhibition's last stop in the United States. Organized by British Museum curators and coordinated by the American Federation of Art, Eternal Egypt has been on the road since early 2001. It cost the Walters $1.49 million to bring it here.
"Designed to illustrate the development and achievement of ancient Egyptian art over 3,000 years and more," says W.V. Davies, keeper (curator) of Egyptian antiquities at the British Museum, "it consists of 144 representative works of diverse type."
Indeed the exhibit includes sculpture, relief, papyri, jewelry, cosmetic objects and funerary items. "Many [of the objects] are among the finest examples of their kind to have survived from antiquity," Davies writes in the preface to the show's catalog.
Machin, the director of a Chicago art-handling firm called Methods and Materials, has installed and re-installed the 144 largest pieces in the show at each of eight stops along the way since the show first opened in Toledo, Ohio.
It's Friday morning, and he and his platoon of art handlers have been working all week to install the ancient objects. They position the stone lion - padded with mover's quilts - under a pair of gantries with four chain falls (essentially geared pulleys) and slowly begin lifting. They pull in unison like sailors on a four-master. Machin, a stocky, bearded guy in a black T-shirt from a Seattle sushi joint, is in constant motion, coaching from all four corners. The chains rattle like a techno band in rehearsal.
At about 3 feet, the lion hangs motionless from the gantries. The handlers roll the base and a "weight-spreader" underneath and lower the lion. Machin makes minute adjustments and when satisfied, whips the pads off like a bullfighter twirling his cape. The crowd of onlookers, visitors, Walters staff, photographers and reporters cheers. The lion remains cool, remote and regal, every inch a masterwork of ancient Egyptian art.
Intently watching Machin's installation is Neal Spencer, an assistant keeper at the British Museum and the show's curator for this leg of Eternal Egypt's journey. That means he is a sort of minder, alert for bumps, breaks, chips or scratches. "We take a series of photographs at the British Museum before they leave," he says. "Then at each installation, we check for any change in a piece."
Spencer spreads the photos around the lion and, with a powerful flashlight in hand, he examines the statue for the most minute damage. "Stone can be incredibly delicate, particularly limestone, which is incredibly crumbly and responsive to changes in temperature," he says.
So far, none of the big sculptures has even been bruised. "Some of the organic objects are made of wood, and text material, and you do sometimes get some loosening," Spencer says. "That's why we bring a conservator."
While the lion's the largest piece in the show, it's actually one of the easiest things to install. "Because it's very low to the ground," Machin says. "The Hathor capital is probably the most interesting one to install."
A cow deity with a complicated past, Hathor was goddess of joy, motherhood and love, a fertility goddess who protected pregnant women and midwives. Her portrait on the capital (the top of a column) is typically broad-faced and placid - and six and a half feet high.
In Minneapolis, a museum staffer suggested she looks like Mary Tyler Moore, not very flattering for Ms. Moore since Hathor capital is identified by her cow ears.
Machin demurs: "I don't think that."
On Thursday, Machin and his crew put the Hathor capital on its pedestal. The goddess weighs 4,300 pounds and now sits on a very high base, a complex structure of steel I-beams and crossed-angle irons that looks strong enough to hold an Abrams tank - or a Lincoln Navigator.
"It makes for quite a dramatic installation," Machin says, dryly. He directs his four-man crew like a coxswain on a battle galley: "One, two, three and three, three, three." The piece ends up above the gantries lifting it.
The crew slides the base underneath, lowers away, then it's gravity that keeps Hathor on her pedestal. "We're not going to bolt it down," Machin says. "You don't need to. You'll see that most sculptures like this are just held in there by [gravity]."
He does use oak wedges glued to the pedestal to keep it in place, keep it from rocking, so to speak.
Hathor towers 13 1/2 feet high in what are usually the 19th-century galleries on the fourth floor. As Renard points out where a Monet used to hang, Machin and his crew uncrate a 5-foot-8-inch bust of Ramses the Great. Ramses emerges from the protection of layers of styrofoam sheathed in Tyvek like a Christo wrapping.
Regine Schulz, curator of ancient art at the Walters; John Klink, longtime designer at the Walters who now has his own firm; and Paula Millet, his successor at the museum, produced the layout of the Walters show. Museum visitors will start at the lion and enter the first floor galleries just past his head.
These galleries will exhibit art from the Third Millennium and first half of the Second Millennium, says Schulz, who is also professor of Egyptology at Munich University. "From the Old Kingdom to the start of the 18th Dynasty, from 2600 to 1400," she says. That includes one of her favorite figures, Sesostris II, a king of the Twelfth Dynasty whose grave demeanor pleases her.
"We have six kings [from that period]," she says. And the last one visitors will see as they leave the first floor is Amenhotep III, who ordered the lion for a temple in Nubia.
"Upstairs starts with the 13th century and runs to the First Century B.C.," Schulz says. "Altogether, two-thousand six-hundred years."
Also on the fourth floor, there will be a jewelry room, a papyrus room and two anthropomorphic coffins. "Several of these pieces will never, never travel again when they go back."
Art handlers often develop an affinity with the art they move, Machin says. "My favorite is this black slab of granite that has two holes through it. We're not sure of the origins of the holes. It was once part of a tomb, then it got used as a paving stone."
The piece is The Architectural Slab of Nectanebo I from about 360 to 332 B.C. with a carving showing the king kneeling and offering bread. "I like it as an object," says Machin, who came from Leicester, England, to study sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. "I'm just fascinated by the holes in the middle. Everybody has their favorites."
The pieces he has installed this week arrived in the pre-dawn hours on Tuesday from the Field Museum in Chicago in two 18-wheelers. "I rode in one," Spencer says. "We ride in tandem. The other truck stays in front. So I can see it at all times. So you don't get much sleep. And when we stop for gas or anything, we park the trucks back to back. It's quite a nice ride, but ... one of the longer ones I've done."
The caravan left Chicago at 1 p.m. Monday and arrived at 3:15 the next morning at the Walters; a journey that included an hourlong stop to change tires. "What we're not looking forward to is this 60-hour trip from Toronto to Vancouver."
The British Museum's Egyptian holdings include about six million objects, he says. "These are some of the best pieces. Some are very important, popular pieces."
But not all are monumental.
Consider, for example, a small glass fish. Not quite six inches long, it is probably a perfume bottle and remains brightly colored in turquoise, lapis lazuli and yellow jasper after 3,300 years. "The glass fish is one of our really star objects," Spencer says."
And, of course, the lion has been a signature object of the British Museum since it was installed in The Egyptian Sculpture Gallery in 1836.
Machin, who has moved everything from a historic Minnesota flour mill to Native American totem poles, praises the British Museum and the American Federation of Arts. "They're very, very professional," he says, "making sure everything's properly taken care of.
"I have the easy job of just picking stuff up and putting it down again."