The museum is perhaps most famous for its extensive Egyptian collections, appropriately divided (like the Ancient Kingdom) into two parts, that span all three floors. The ground floor Lower Egyptian Gallery provides a stunning introduction to this culture as it features elements from the Merenptah Palace the museum claims are "the finest preserved part of an ancient Egyptian palace anywhere in the world." It features an original gateway, doorframes, and windows, as well as a monumental Sphinx that’s apparently the third largest in the world. The Upper Egyptian gallery is no less impressive, containing several stunningly intact statues as well as detailed displays on daily life in Egypt and several mummies (both animals and humans) within an informative exhibit on the process of mummification.
Although nothing matches the Lower Egypt exhibition for grandeur, the Mesopotamian exhibition on the top floor certainly equals it in terms of quality. It features the world’s oldest wine jar and various artifacts from the Royal Tombs of Ur so fine in quality and degree of preservation they look as they could have been plucked from shops in Philadelphia’s Jewelers Row. As these are currently traveling, you can examine similarly intricate objects in the superb "Worlds Intertwined Exhibition" which covers the Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Etruscans, helpfully putting them in context with one another. Bear in mind, however, that this well-documented (and information-heavy) exhibition is extremely popular with school groups and is thus nearly always busy during the week. The similarly engaging, although less extensive exhibition on Ancient Israel and Canaan, adjacent to the classical exhibitions, is a good alternative if they are crowded.
Almost all of the museum’s non-Western collections are on the second (middle floor), the only exceptions being the airy Chinese Rotunda and similarly spacious Buddhism exhibition on the top floor. Although interesting and informative, these anthropological collections, which cover Polynesia, Africa, and Native America, are not of the same quality as the museum’s archaeological collections. Consequently, unless you’re particularly interested in these cultures, I would recommend visiting the archaeological collections first, in case you find yourself running out of time. The exhibit on Islamic culture, spanning both archaeology and anthropology and the museum’s first two floors, is similarly unexceptional. Do bear in mind, however, that these are only comparative weakpoints in a truly world-class museum.
The museum’s superb website offers a wealth of information about both the collections and the cultures they cover.
by Owen Lipsett
New York, New York
July 4, 2005
From journal Philadelphia I: Essential Museums