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Centennial exhibit revives age-old beauty

By Mary Spicuzza, Special to the Daily Planet
Monday March 25, 2002

With her huge almond-shaped eyes and vulture wing headdress, she could draw a crowd in any room. But it’s been years since she had the opportunity. 

“She generally lives down in her storage area,” Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology Registrar Joan Knudsen said, glancing down at the gorgeous, golden-hued mummy case of Princess Nes-Khonsu-pa-shered. “She has her own box there.” 

But the intricately-painted case that once held the Eqyptian princess — lovingly referred to as “she” by Knudsen — has emerged from storage and captured a starring role at the UC Berkeley museum, which is celebrating its centennial with a new 700-piece exhibit that opened on February 28. The show, titled “A Century of Collecting,” offers a small sampling of the 3.8 million objects that belong to the museum, which is located in Kroeber Hall on Bancroft Avenue.  

Knudsen, a Cal graduate student finishing her dissertation in Egyptology, said the museum doesn’t have anything against the princess, who was also a priestess. It just doesn’t have enough room to display most of its 18,000 items from Egypt. 

“You can imagine what we could do if we had more space,” she said, standing near a stone-carved bust of Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess of pestilence and healing — and some say, divine retribution. 

Limited space aside, Knudsen and Nicole Mullen, outreach manager for the museum, beamed with pride yesterday as they led a quick tour of the exhibit, which features 700 of the centuries-old and contemporary creations from Egypt, Asia, Africa, America and the Mediterranean region.  

Knudsen admitted she favors the princess and the other Egyptian pieces, stopping to admire a prince’s painted limestone funeral carving, known as a stela. Mullen added that she has a “soft spot” for the Alaskan pieces, and pointed out two Eskimo shaman and dance masks hanging around the corner from the glass-encased cartonnage, or mummy case. The museum bought the masks were from the Alaska Commercial Company, who bought them in the late 1800s for a corporate collection. 

The exhibit has opened at an especially exciting time for Egyptologists. Although Princess Nes-Khonsu-pa-shered was buried in 800 BC, she is now winning newfound interest thanks to hi-tech studies being done on her husband, an Egyptian priest known as Nespernub. Unlike that of his wife, Nespernub’s mummy is still in its case, and scientists working at the British Museum have been able to create virtual, three-dimensional images of his body using computer programs created by Silicon Graphics Inc.(SGI), a Mountain View-based firm. 

“We are obtaining exclusive new data,” Dr. John Taylor, assistant keeper at the British Museum’s Ancient Egypt department, said in an emailed statement.