Mummies Dearest

On a recent sunny afternoon, Denver Art Museum director Lewis Sharp was standing under the museum's still-controversial entrance canopy on Acoma Plaza. Not that the canopy provides any shade: Though workers began erecting it last fall, it's still not finished. The stainless-steel panels intended to provide it with a roof have not yet been installed. "I just ask that people wait until it's finished before they judge it," Sharp said.

The tubular steel canopy, designed by George Hoover for the Denver architectural firm of AR7, has caused considerable consternation in the art world. In fact, a nearly universal howl has gone up, with everyone from young alternative-space denizens to elderly socialite collectors having something bad to say about it. The chief gripe is the way the canopy interferes with the view from the Civic Center of Mark di Suvero's spectacular "Lao Tzu" sculpture, which is sited on the plaza nearby.

Lately, complaints about the goofy protuberance have snowballed to the point that a formal letter-writing campaign has been launched. The aim is to have what has been dubbed "the claw" removed. Sadly, there's little chance of that, at least in the short run. But don't despair. More than one museum staffer points out that whereas the di Suvero is permanent, the same can't be said for the canopy.

Working in the canopy's defense, meanwhile, is the fact that it obviously doesn't repel visitors. For proof, check out the crowds flocking to the DAM's current summer blockbuster, Searching for Ancient Egypt: Art, Architecture, and Artifacts.

Originating at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, this large traveling exhibit was organized by renowned Egyptologist David Silverman, who worked on the King Tut and Ramses shows in the 1980s. It comprises 138 artifacts from the MAA's massive 42,000-plus-piece permanent collection, a treasure trove resulting from Penn's work as a major player in Egyptian excavations from the 1890s up to the present.

The articles chosen by Silverman span thousands of years of Egyptian history, and though the MAA has been exhibiting this kind of mate-rial since the late nineteenth century, some of the items in Ancient Egypt have never before been put on public display.

DAM has gone all out for Ancient Egypt, with eye-catching banners heralding the show having been erected on light poles around town and along Pena Boulevard. To meet demand--or perhaps to create it--the museum has installed a special gift shop in the lobby. Headsets featuring audio tours of the show are available, and the Hamilton Galleries have been thoroughly redecorated with an Egyptian theme and repainted in such earthy shades as a luscious terra-cotta red. This refitting, as well as the installation of the show, was supervised by Leland Murray, the DAM's gifted exhibition designer.

Murray sets an appropriate Egyptian mood even before visitors enter the spacious first-floor Hamilton Galleries. Tropical plants have been arranged on shelves, a reference to the offerings that were placed outside Egyptian temples. The plants are positioned on either side of a colonnade whose columns have been fitted out with lotus capitals. The Hamilton Galleries are dimly lit, a concession to conservation, perhaps, but striking just the right somber chord for a display containing mummy cases and sarcophagus lids. The show is divided into four sections, beginning with "People of the Nile," which is devoted to the daily life of Egyptians, both the opulent and the ordinary. Following are self-explanatory sections on "Rulers of the Realm," "Visions of Life After Death" and "Gods and Goddesses."

As befits a summer blockbuster, there are a few diversions along the way. One of four interactive displays in the show, for instance, invites visitors to try their hand at mummification: "Participants can handle the brain hook," enthuses the exhibit's press release. In better taste are the three other interactive setups, one devoted to cosmetics, another to stone-carving and the last one to calligraphy. And though curmudgeons may howl at this shameless attempt to engage otherwise inattentive viewers, the kids love the stuff: The mummy display is constantly mobbed.

While the mummies are undeniably fascinating, the real appeal of Ancient Egypt is its fine Egyptian art. The show offers a wide variety of remarkable objects, and none is more remarkable than the "West Wall of the Tomb Chapel of Kaipura," originally built in Saqqara almost 4,500 years ago. The "West Wall" is a nearly twenty-foot-long, eleven-foot-tall limestone fragment covered with finely carved bas-reliefs. Silverman calls it the largest object ever to travel in an exhibition. The University of Pennsylvania owns the entire chapel and originally conceived Ancient Egypt as a way of raising funds for its restoration.

The wall is made up of nearly two dozen stone blocks, the largest and heaviest being the "false door," which alone weighs five tons. As a result, it was necessary to create a specially engineered display that features a mammoth vertical counterweight (disguised as a pedestal) running along the floor below the "West Wall." This counterweight is used to redistribute the weight of the wall across the floor and across the building's structural frame so that it won't fall into the DAM's basement.