Plan Ahead

Visiting Manet/Degas?

You must join the virtual queue. Read the additional visitor guidelines.

About The Met/ Collection Areas/ Egyptian Art/ The History of the Department

The History of the Department

Assembling an Egyptian collection. By 1905, approximately 4,400 objects formed the nucleus of a collection of ancient Egyptian art at The Met. The first pieces were seals and scarabs, acquired in 1874 from Luigi Palma di Cesnola, the Museum’s first director, followed in 1886 by an important group of objects purchased directly from the Egyptian government, including funerary equipment from the family tomb of Sennedjem, a Ramesside artisan (ca. 1300 B.C.). 


A copper ring with a stone scarab to the left and a wooden box painted with images of mummies along with three small mummiform figures and one figure in a white robe to the right.

Left:  Ring with a scarab inscribed with an ankh, ca. 1070–712 B.C. Silver, travertine (Egyptian alabaster), gold. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Cesnola Collection, Purchased by subscription, 1874–76 (74.51.4183);   Right:  Shabti box and shabtis from the tomb of Sennedjem (TT 1),  ca. 1279–1213 B.C.   Painted wood, limestone, and ink. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Purchased from the Egyptian government. Funds from various donors, 1886 (86.1.14, .18, .21, .28); Gift of J. Lionberger Davis, 1967 (67.80)

Between 1897 and 1906, this early collection was expanded principally through the Museum’s financial support of excavations organized by the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF), a British research society. Until the system ended, the Egyptian government had a generous practice known as partage that allowed a share of the non-unique finds from a field season to be given to the institution sponsoring the expedition. The EEF divided its share of the finds among the institutions supporting their work. As a result of this association, The Met formed a noteworthy collection of important pieces from the Predynastic tombs at Abadiya, various sites at Abydos (including the tombs of the first Egyptian kings), Roman material from Oxyrhynchus, and relief fragments and sculptures from the temples at Deir el-Bahri and tombs at Dendera.

Clockwise from upper left are a tall red pot with a black rim, then a wood stela showing a woman with a bird-headed god making offerings, the stone statue of a squatting man and a game piece in the shape of a lion.

Clockwise from upper left: Black-topped Red Ware Beaker, ca. 3850–2960 B.C. Pottery. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Egypt Exploration Fund, 1899 (99.4.111); Stela of Tabakenkhonsu, ca. 680–670 B.C. Wood, paste, paint. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Egypt Exploration Fund, 1896 (96.4.4); Block Statue of Nedjem, ca. 1184–1153 B.C. Diorite. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Egypt Exploration Fund, 1906 (06.1231.88); Game Piece in the Form of a Lion, ca. 3100–2649 B.C. Ivory. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Egypt Exploration Fund, 1903 (03.4.13)

Establishing the Department. In 1906, under the leadership of J. Pierpont Morgan (1904–13), The Board of Trustees approved the establishment of a Department of Egyptian Art, one of the earliest departments at The Met. Albert M. Lythgoe (1906–29), an Egyptologist with archaeological experience, became its first curator. The Department’s mandate included excavating in Egypt under The Met’s aegis in order to acquire objects to expand the collection through the division of finds. Each expedition was responsible for conducting a scientific excavation that would result in a complete archaeological record for each find. This allowed the careful dating of every object, both those that came to The Met and those that stayed in Egypt, so each could be understood within its appropriate historic period and cultural context. 

In the desert with cliffs in the background, an archaeologist in a suit, gesturing with his hat while another man takes photo with a camera on a tripod and two other men in turbans and long robes watch.

Photo of Albert Lythgoe shading the camera of Harry Burton, accompanied by two Egyptians, from the Guest Book of Mrs. Harry Burton from the Metropolitan Museum's Expedition House, Thebes 1923–39.  The  Metropolitan Museum of Art, Department of Egyptian Art Archives (211297)

Lythgoe added other curators to his staff, including Arthur C. Mace, Ambrose Lansing, Ludlow Bull, and Carolyn Ransom Williams, and one who was to become closely associated with the Department’s early fieldwork, Herbert E. Winlock. After the initial seasons under Mace, Winlock and later Lansing both became directors of the Egyptian Expedition. Winlock (1929–39) and Lansing (1939–52) also became heads of the Department, while Winlock later served as the Museum’s director (1932–39) as well.

A group of nine people pose in the archway of a house, with three men and one woman in the back and one man and four women in the front.

Staff of The Met's Egyptian Expedition to Egypt. Back row: Walter Hauser, Herbert Winlock, Harry Burton, Mrs. Arthur C. Mace; Front row: Minnie Burton, Sir H. Rider Haggard, Mrs. Haggard, Mrs. Armstrong, Helen Chandler Winlock. The Metropolitan Museum  of  Art, Department of Egyptian Art Archives. Photograph from Guest Book of Mrs. Harry Burton from the Metropolitan Museum's Expedition House, Thebes A.D. 1923–39. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Mr. Charles K. Wilkinson, 1976 (1976.200)

Excavating in Egypt.  For the next thirty years (1906–36), until financial problems created by the Depression ended fieldwork, The Met sent their archaeologists almost every year into the field. The foci of excavation were Lisht (between 1907 and 1936); Kharga (between 1908 and 1936—these objects are now largely part of Department of Medieval Art’s collection); Wadi Natrun (in 1910 and again between 1919 and 1921); Thebes (between 1910 and 1936); and Hierakonpolis (1934–35). The Egyptian Expedition during these early years employed leading names in Egyptian archaeology, including Harry Burton—a talented field photographer who recorded the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb—which resulted in a body of work that remains an important archaeological archive. 

A view from high up on a cliff looking down over a desert valley in which the ruins of a large temple can be seen.

 Panoramic view of Deir el-Bahri,   showing the Mentuhotep II Temple, court, and causeway before beginning work, 1921. Photograph by Harry Burton. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Department of Egyptian Art Archives (M3C 6)

After an almost fifty-year hiatus, the Department returned to Egypt in 1984 under the direction of Dieter Arnold, who renewed fieldwork at the site of Lisht. However, in order to understand the pyramid complexes of Amenemhat I and Senwosret I at Lisht more fully, Arnold moved his team in 1990 to Dahshur, the site of the vast Middle Kingdom pyramid complex of Senwosret III (ca. 1878–1840 B.C.). The fieldwork at Dahshur, now co-directed by Adela Oppenheim, remains an active project. The festival-city of Amenhotep III (ca. 1391–1353 B.C.) at Malqata was another large site excavated and its architecture was planned in these early years of fieldwork (1910–20). The Met returned to this site in 2008 under the direction of Diana Craig Patch to understand more thoroughly the objects The Met had acquired from partage; the archaeological work is ongoing.

Mudbrick remains of wall in the foreground, remains of a mudbrick structure behind it, and in the background a decayed pyramid to the left and a preserved pyramid to the right

View of the current excavations at Dahshur, with the Senwosret III pyramid in the background and the Sobekemhat mastaba in the foreground. Photograph by Dieter Arnold. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Department of Egyptian Art Archives 

Recording Egyptian monuments. The fieldwork in Egypt encompassed more than excavation; it also involved recording the standing monuments at or near the sites where the Museum worked. As part of this initiative, between 1907 and 1937 the Graphic Section of the Egyptian Expedition precisely drew and then painted facsimiles of wall paintings at ancient Egyptian sites exactly as they appeared. For the most part, they recorded the decorated walls of tomb chapels in the Theban necropolis. Norman de Garis Davies led a gifted staff that included his wife, Nina de Garis Davies, and The Met’s Charles K. Wilkinson.

A painting with a yellow-gold background showing a woman and a man in white garments seated on chairs while another man and woman offer them food and flowers.

Norman de Garis Davies,  Ipuy and Wife Receive Offerings from Their Children (substantially restored). Tempera on paper, framed. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Rogers Fund, 1930 (30.4.114)

Building and researching the collection. Between 1906 and 1936, fieldwork was a focus of the Department’s work. The large numbers of objects shipped back from the excavations needed substantial amounts of research in order to incorporate them into the collection. Not only were there the large numbers of pieces gifted by the Egyptian government, but The Met, often assisted by generous donors, purchased several crucial collections, for example that of Lord Carnarvon (acquired 1926), and received important gifts like that of Theodore M. Davis. Curators Caroline Ransom Williams and Ludlow Bull led in researching these additions to the collection. The Department released important studies—often in the series Publications of the Egyptian Expedition—on collections of material from archaeological sites and purchases as well as information on tomb chapels.

After World War II, the Department’s work continued to emphasize research. In the 1950s, this work was under the leadership of William C. Hayes (1952‒63), who was primarily interested in ancient Egyptian language and history, although he had worked under Lansing and Winlock on early excavations. Curators Charlotte Clark, Henry G. Fischer, and Nora Scott supported Hayes, and their research efforts allowed him to complete the two volumes of The Scepter of Egypt, a systematic study of much of the Egyptian collection prior to 1963. For the next four decades, these books were major reference volumes for scholars studying ancient Egypt.

The covers of two books, The Scepter of Egypt part one and The Scepter of Egypt part 2.

William C. Hayes. The Scepter of Egypt: A Background for the Study of the Egyptian Antiquities in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2 Volumes.  Harvard University Press, for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1953–59

It was also during this period that The Met decided that its collection was too large and encouraged curatorial departments to review their collections and deaccession those objects considered of lesser importance. During the latter years of the 1950s, some 14,000 Egyptian objects were deaccessioned. Many went to other museums, but some were sold to private individuals.  

Creating The Lila Acheson Wallace Galleries. Director James J. Rorimer concluded in the late 1950s that the Egyptian galleries needed renovation. In 1963, the Department’s new head curator, Henry G. Fischer (1964–70), developed a close working relationship with Lila Acheson Wallace, an important donor with a deep interest in ancient Egypt. Wallace and The Met formulated a plan to put the entire collection of Egyptian art on view in some thirty-eight galleries. This was a significant shift in the concept of the display of art, as much of the collection had for many years been in storage. Fischer undertook the initial planning, with the assistance of Virginia Burton and Nora Scott. It took some twenty-five years to bring the plan to fruition with the third and final phase opening in 1983. Christine Lilyquist (1974–89), then the department head and supported by curators Peter Dorman, Cathleen Keller, Thomas Logan, Edna R. Russman, and Ray Slater was instrumental in bringing scholarship and accessibility as well as beauty to these new galleries. During this time, a host of young Egyptological scholars were trained as museum curators while they prepared the massive collection for permanent display. 

In 1964, while the plan for the reinstallation was underway, the Egyptian government had given the United States the Temple of Dendur, and the monument was subsequently entrusted to The Met’s care. The gift highlighted Egypt’s appreciation for our country’s support of the campaign to salvage Nubian monuments. The Temple was erected in a newly constructed gallery and became part of the plans for the completion of the second phase of Wallace galleries that opened in 1978.

A view of the Temple of Dendur, with the tall narrow gateway in the foreground, and the square temple in the back, looking toward a wall of windows

The Temple of Dendur, completed by 10 B.C. Aeolian sandstone. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Given to the United States by Egypt in 1965 and awarded to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1967 (68.154)

Considering The Philippe de Montebello years. Organized by Thomas Hoving, The Met hosted the exhibition, Treasures of Tutankhamun, in 1978, which kicked off a renewed global interest in ancient Egypt. During Philippe de Montebello’s tenure as director—which began shortly after the exhibition opened—all departments were encouraged to acquire remarkable works of art and create important exhibitions. Dorothea Arnold (1989–2012), who now headed Egyptian Art, created exhibitions that brought premier pieces from other, often international museums together with exceptional works from The Met’s collection to explore historical periods and culturally focused themes through new research. She also encouraged curators Dieter Arnold, Marsha Hill, Catharine H. Roehrig, James P. Allen, Diana Craig Patch, and Adela Oppenheim to explore topics as well. The catalogues from these large, exquisitely planned and designed exhibitions remain seminal studies of their subjects: Royal Women of Amarna, Egyptian Art in the Time of the Pyramids, Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh, Gifts for the Gods, Dawn of Egyptian Art, and Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom. In addition, Arnold championed the development of a small special exhibition gallery, which held during her tenure imaginative and informative exhibitions, such as James P. Allen’s Art and Medicine in Ancient Egypt and Arnold’s own Tutankhamun’s Funeral.

The entrance to the exhibition, Ancient Egypt Transformed, with a projection of an Egyptian landscape to the left and a statue of a king wearing a knee-length white robe and a red crown with a flat top straight ahead.

The entrance to the exhibition, Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom (at The Met Fifth Avenue, October 12, 2015–January 24, 2016). The Metropolitan Museum of Art 

Although the Department of Egyptian Art was awarded its last item through partage in 1936, The Met continued to acquire art through purchases and gifts. During these years, major pieces of Egyptian art were acquired, expanding the collection further. Although all periods received attention, it was during this time that many pivotal objects were added to the Third Intermediate Period and Late Period galleries (ca. 1070–332 B.C.).

The planning put in place for Lila Acheson Wallace Galleries of Egyptian Art remains the core structure through which the Egyptian collection is shared. However, de Montebello encouraged the updating of the collection’s display, especially as a critical acquisition or new research indicated need. In accordance with that initiative, Arnold first reinstalled the Amarna galleries (1996); reconceptualized the galleries adjacent to the Great Hall, including the Predynastic and Roman sections as well as the mastabas of Perneb and Raemkai (2004); innovatively reimagined the space housing material from Dynasty 12-13 (Gallery 111) and the gallery (115) that houses the sculpture of Hatshepsut (2008); and finally, initiated the plans for redoing the Ptolemaic galleries that Marsha Hill completed in 2017 with a breathtaking installation.

A view of the Ptolemaic galleries, with four standing coffins and two mummies lying down visible to the left.

A view of the Ptolemaic galleries (133-134), from Gallery 133. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Today our work continues the traditions of scientifically based fieldwork, exhibitions grounded in new scholarship, and critical acquisitions that bring new insights to our understanding of ancient Egypt. New work in the galleries often addresses themes in Egyptian art and culture, cutting across time and space to provide highlights within the valuable chronological framework of the Lila Acheson Wallace Galleries. We also have added new practices, such as innovative, compelling, and comprehensive ways to share our collection through a variety of digital experiences.