The Quest for Immortality

    Egyptian art is impressive in its age and scale. Without reading the didactic on the wall, it is possible to appreciate the skill and vision of the ancient sculptors who created such intricate carvings, the scribes and painters who carefully documented the realm of the dead, and the metal-smiths who so painstakingly set amazing stones.

    There is no doubt that “The Quest for Immortality,” which opened Nov. 5 at the Portland Art Museum (PAM), is awe-inspiring. To walk in the front entrance is to come face to face with a large, two-story statue of Ramesses II, who reigned in Egypt between 1279 and 1213 BCE. The wall didactic is informative, but it’s really the audio tour that gives the most interesting background.

    ”The Quest” exhibition is based upon the excavations of the royal tombs at Tanis begun in 1939, and focuses upon Ancient Egyptian beliefs and rituals surrounding the dead.

    Highlights of the exhibition are dependent upon the audience. Younger children will appreciate the various animal/human statues and simulated Tomb of Thutmose III.

    Students have the opportunity to examine both the stone and inner sarcophagi used in burials, and the intricate jewelry and possessions that accompanied the mummy to the tomb and beyond. The proliferation of hieroglyphic carvings and writings is fascinating, with their translation through the audio guide. Even the late 19th-century photographs that show postcard views of Egypt and the excavation sites are intriguing.

    The massive marketing campaign that has accompanied the art museum’s newest exhibit is impossible to avoid. Conceived and coordinated by United Exhibits Group (Copenhagen), “The Quest for Immortality” has a long list of sponsors, including media partner TriMet and community partner the Portland State University Middle East Studies Center. Fred Meyer is a major patron, Macy’s contributed, Harold and Arlene Schnitzer are “Pharoah’s Gold Circle Members.” The Portland Art Museum has managed to enlist some financial heavyweights to make the exhibit possible.

    The sponsors list begs the question of ticket price. At $20, tickets to “The Quest” are not cheap. As an art museum member, or a Portland State student with a college student pass, the cost drops to $10. Tickets include the audio guide and are timed for entry into the exhibit in an attempt to control crowding. Fortunately, the ticket price includes entry to the other exhibits in the art museum, so it’s possible to fill the time until entry with other artistic pursuits. It’s also possible to spend the entire day at the museum, attending one of the many Egypt-related lectures and events. (The art museum’s schedule is available at

    The Portland Art Museum likes competitive facts. Browsing the museum website, “The Quest for Immortality” is touted as the largest selection of antiquities ever loaned by Egypt for exhibition in North America. Technically, it is, since the Tutankhamun exhibit currently in Chicago will also be visiting London, while “The Quest” will remain stateside, with its next stop being the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas. The works are described as “the greatest treasures of the Egyptian Museum,” which is entirely possible, although difficult to prove.

    The art museum is expecting record numbers of visitors during “The Quest’s” four-month run, which closes March 4, 2007. If it is any indication, the opening weekend lectures and pre-party were completely sold out, and the education department is expecting busloads of school groups throughout the weekday mornings. Fortunately, “The Quest” encompasses two levels and several galleries within the Portland Art Museum, and the audio guide allows visitors to choose topics based on numbered artifacts, so it is possible to avoid large groups and bottlenecks.

    Overall, “The Quest for Immortality” is an impressive display of artifacts that would be individually impressive regardless of surroundings. The art museum provides good information, structure and support for the exhibit, and the host of peripheral events is worth attention.

    Portland Art Museum, 1219 S.W. Park Ave., Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m. ?” 5 p.m., Thursday and Friday 10 a.m. ?” 8 p.m.,