THANKS to modern display and lighting techniques, today's museums and galleries are finally doing justice to the sculpture and artifacts of ancient and distant cultures. Placed judiciously in an appropriate setting, under strategically located spotlights that give clarity and emphasis, works that might have appeared dull and lifeless suddenly take on an aura of power and mystery. Even major pieces can benefit from this treatment; witness the excellent display of ethnographic and archaeological artifacts from all over the world assembled at the IBM Gallery for Science and Art here. Even a flat, undramatic presentation of these 160 exceptional works from the University of Pennsylvania's University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology would be noteworthy, but shown as they are, handsomely mounted to underscore the diversity of the world's cultures, they add up to an outstanding exhibition.
``Discovering the Past'' features primarily three-dimensional art and craft objects from Egypt, Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Oceania, the Mediterranean, the Near East, and North, Central, and South America. They were selected by IBM's Dr. Cynthia Goodman from the approximately 1.5 million pieces owned by the University Museum.
The University Museum was founded in 1887, at a time when travelogues and photographs of foreign lands were popular forms of entertainment. Missionaries working in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific returned with stories of exotic places and unfamiliar societies, bringing with them tangible evidence of the sights they had seen and the peoples they had visited. ``Soon,'' writes the museum's Dr. Kathryn Grabowski, ``this haphazard interest in foreign cultures developed into the academic discipline of anthropology, the formal study of mankind's varied cultures.''
Archaeology, on the other hand, was perceived as an excellent way of confirming biblical accounts. Early archaeological findings in the Near East corroborated passages in the Old Testament, and helped stir interest in excavations there, as well as in Egypt and the Mediterranean region. The University Museum's first excavation, at Nippur (Iraq) in 1888-90, was also the first excavation in the Near East by an American institution.
Some of the museum's most spectacular objects come from the so-called Royal Cemetery at Ur, an ancient city on the Euphrates. Among the finest of these is a 66-inch-high bull-headed lyre (c. 2650-2550 B.C.). Made of gold and lapis lazuli, it stands out even in this remarkable exhibition. It is inlaid with imaginatively conceived and exquisitely crafted scenes of bull wrestling and of animals playing musical instruments.
The exhibition's air of mystery and magic is further enhanced by the presence of a powerful A.D. 1550-1650 bronze plaque of a ruler flanked by warriors, political associates, and retainers from the kingdom of Benin in Nigeria; a delicately modeled, 10th-century A.D. silver death mask from China; a remarkably detailed 4th-century A.D. Roman cameo depicting the triumphal procession of an emperor; and an Egyptian nobleman's stone stele from around 2100 B.C., which is richly decorated with hieroglyphics and painted figures.
Not to be outdone by ancient history, the exhibit also includes colorful 19th- and early 20th-century beaded and feathered ceremonial baskets made by the Pomo Indians of northern California; ceremonial feather headdresses from the Kayapo Indians of Brazil; and a war cloak of hornbill feathers from Borneo.
Every piece is special and is treated like the treasure it is. And yet, fascinating and even important as each work may be, it's the ensemble effect of so many extraordinary objects displayed in so carefully orchestrated a manner that makes viewing this exhibition such a remarkable event. Only rarely are we given the opportunity to savor so many outstanding examples from so many different cultures and societies in so compact a space.
If nothing else, it gives us an all-important glimpse into the richness and diversity of the human creative experience - a glimpse that is underscored by the presence, in adjacent galleries, of the already-reviewed (see July 18 edition) Hyde Collection of European and American masterworks. Seen together, they make up as celebratory a summer show as one is apt to find anywhere.
At the IBM Gallery of Science and Art, Madison Avenue and 56th Street, through Aug. 26.