Honoring the Sacred Spirit from Ancient to Modern at the Carlos Museum

Heather Greene —  July 27, 2014 — 4 Comments

When people think of anthropological museums, they might recall the famous British Museum in London, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Smithsonian in WDC, or New York City’s American Museum of Natural History. Very few people would consider Atlanta, Georgia home to a place that cradles any of the treasures of ancient civilizations. But it is. Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum is one of the country’s top small anthropological museums. Its area of focus has captivated local Pagans and Heathens for years.

[Photo Credit: Monika&Jim/Flickr]

Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University [Photo Credit: Monika&Jim/Flickr]

Founded in 1919, the Carlos Museum has been growing its collection of art and cultural artifacts for nearly a century. Its beginnings can be found with a collection of Asian works brought back by Methodist missionaries in the 1870s. Over time, Emory University grew and along with it, the museum. Today it houses over 16,000 art objects from “ancient Egypt, Nubia, Near East, Greece, Rome, ancient Americas, Africa, and Asia as well as a collection of works on paper from the Renaissance to the present.”

In displaying these pieces, the museum says, “[We show] meticulous care for the legacy of ancient civilizations and the learning opportunities innate in each artifact.” In its Greek and Roman exhibit, you might see a marble “Statue of Venus” (Roman, fourth century B.C.E.) In its Asian exhibit, you might find the red sandstone “Figure of Ganesh” (India, eighth or ninth century).

Over the last 15 years, the Carlos Museum has become known particularly for its impressive and sizable ancient Egyptian collection. Originally, the exhibit centered on artifacts acquired in the 1920s, including the oldest Egyptian mummy in the Americas. Then, in 1999, its collection grew substantially after the purchase of 145 artifacts from the now-closed Niagara Falls Museum.

Most of new pieces were funerary in nature including, in part, 10 mummies and 9 coffins. The items had originally been acquired by a collector in the 1850’s and placed on display with what, National Geographic called, a “tacky, freaks of nature”  exhibit at the old museum. After examining the pieces, Emory professors discovered that one of the artifacts was the lost mummy of Ramses I. Emory returned the mummy to Egypt “as an act of goodwill.” An Canadian Egyptologist told National Geographic:

Ramses was from northern Egypt, and the family’s god was Seth, the god of storms. The night of the reception [to open the new exhibit] there was a powerful storm, with thunder and lightning and hail; a tornado just missed us. It was a very unusual storm for Atlanta. I think it was Rameses, letting us know that he’s happy to be going home.

In addition to its remarkable permanent collection of ancient cultural artifacts, the Carlos Museum also sponsors exhibits that celebrate contemporary cultures through art. For example, in 2012, the museum sponsored an exhibit on Tibetan Sand Mandalas created by Buddhist monks. A talk was given called, “Reflections on Artistry, Spirituality and Community.”

In a similar exploration of spirit and expression, this year’s visiting exhibition is called “Grandfather Sun; Grandmother Moon: Wixárika Arts of Modern Western Mexico.” In a press release, the museum says:

[The Wixárika’s] stunning beaded objects and pressed-yarn “paintings” span the sacred to the secular, from prayer bowls used on their pilgrimage ceremonies to masks made expressly for collectors. Brightly colored, precise, dynamic and detailed, these works depict their sacred sacrament, the peyote cactus, the deer, the sun and the moon, shamans, maize plants, jaguars and scorpions.

 

Prayer Bowl [Courtesy of the Carlos Museum]

Prayer Bowl [Courtesy of the Carlos Museum]

This new exhibit celebrates the Wixárika people, “often known as the Huichol, the indigenous people of modern western Mexico.” The museum explains that local artisans often sell copies of their sacred objects in order to maintain their lifestyle and culture, and to remain on their lands. The museum goes on to explain:

The Wixárika strive toward balance in themselves, between humans and nature, and in the spirit world. Their ritual life is oriented toward maintaining harmony. All phenomena are considered interrelated– particularly humans, maize, deer and peyote– and interchange forms. For instance, in mythic times deer became the peyote cactus, which now is “hunted” on the annual pilgrimage to the northern deserts. Shamans (mara’akame) mediate the natural balancing of the cosmic realms and the transformations that occur in other realities. Art is used in rituals, its bright colors meant to attract the attention of the spirits that are believed to control all natural phenomena including rains, the crops, time, and the sun and moon.

As the literature and its employees will remind you often, the museum’s primary purpose is one of education and conservation. With the help of Emory University faculty, museum curators work to provide a public resource and learning center, as well as a student research and teaching facility. The museum offers regular lectures, symposia and brings in special exhibits, like “Grandfather Sun; Grandmother Moon.” For children, they offer camps and classes. This fall’s lineup includes subjects like reading Egyptian hieroglyphics, an introduction to the sacred heroes of Mayan culture, or the Manifestations of Vishnu.

For those not in Atlanta or those not able to attend events, the museum sponsors blogs managed by archaeologists in the field. Currently the museum’s website is hosting “iSamothrace: Framing the Mysteries in the Sanctuary of the Great Gods.” In June, several archaeologists blogged from Israel on “iTell Halif.” Last winter, the Senior Curator of the Egyptian collection and the assistant curator of Egyptian Art of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, both blogged from a dig “iMalqata.”  In addition, the museum maintains an online in its digital gallery.

Pre-Columbian incense burner, Costa Rica [Photo Credit: Madman2001/Flickr]

Pre-Columbian incense burner, Costa Rica [Photo Credit: Madman2001/Flickr]

It doesn’t stop there. The Carlos Museum also sponsors podcasts that “use works of art in [its] collection to spark conversations between distinguished members of Emory’s faculty … Each podcast brings together experts from different disciplines to look at museum objects in new and unusual ways.” Past podcast topics include: “The Shock of the New: Akhenaten, Tutankhamun and the Religious Imagination,”  “The Power of the Goddess,” “Seeing Shamans,” and “Drinking with a Siren.” These interdisciplinary podcasts have won local awards. For the younger set, the museum has created Odyssey – an interactive journey into the ancient worlds.

Not everyone has the means or ability to visit the sacred sites of the ancient worlds in order to enhance religious practice, or to experience the beauty of distant cultures. Not everyone can witness first-hand the lands that were once, and still are, attributed to their own Gods, or experience the powerful rituals and cultural expressions of indigenous societies. Fortunately for those living in the American southeast, the Carlos Museum attempts to bring a taste of those wonders to Atlanta. Through the the cultivation of ideas, conversation and research, the museum gives locals and visitors the opportunity to explore and to be inspired by the spirit and culture of ancient worlds and modern cultures through its art.

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Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer and Pagan spirit living in the Deep South. She has served as Public Information Officer for Covenant of the Goddess and worked extensively with Lady Liberty League. Heather's work has been published in Circle Magazine and elsewhere. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History with a background in the performing and visual arts.
  • Florence Edwards-Miller

    Thank you for this! The Carlos Museum was one of my favorite places as a child, and a real gift to my love of mythology. In fact I think I got to ‘invoke’ a Goddess there for the first time as Hera in a kid’s play put on at their summer camp. It is an awesome space and a must-visit for Pagans passing through!

  • Raksha38

    This was great! I’ll likely never find myself in that area of the country in person, so it’s so awesome that they have so many online resources. I’m definitely going to be spending some serious time going through that stuff tonight! Thanks!

    Also! I’m always on the lookout for new podcasts, so I’m probably going to end up downloading, like, ALL of them.

  • Robert Patrick

    The Carlos is as wonderful as you report. I take students to the Carlos every year where we focus on the Egyptian, Greek and Roman collections. It has one of the largest meso-American collections in the world. We just don’t have time to see it all!

  • Anna H.

    I had no idea. It’s about 9 hours away but I know I’ll be down that way sometime over the next handful of years, and I’ll be sure to stop in. Thank you.