Your journey begins in ancient Egypt: Note carefully the sarcophagus adorned with winged scarabs. Moving on to ancient Assyria, you find the monumental 4,000-pound stone reliefs. Iran is next, represented by a bronze horse bit from the Iron Age. Then comes early Grecian gold earrings. Finally, you reach ancient Rome, epitomized by a towering sculpture of the goddess Athena.
Not a highbrow travel agent's itinerary, this cultural excursion may be taken at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. After more than a year, the museum has finished reinstalling its collections of ancient art into six adjoining galleries, the last of which, filled with Greek and Roman antiquities, opens today.
Part of a master plan of expansion that began in the early 1980s and most notably brought forth the Robert O. Anderson Building in 1986, the galleries complete a historical survey of Western art in the Ahmanson Building that now extends through the 19th Century.
"For a long time we were missing the period between ancient Egypt and the Middle Ages," said curator Constantina Oldknow during last-minute installations the other day. "So these galleries fit the last piece into the puzzle."
The galleries of ancient art--one each for Egypt and West Asia, two for Iran and two for Greece and Rome--contain about 700 objects. Many of these pieces had been in storage for a decade or longer, said Oldknow, who supervised the re-installation with Nancy Thomas, a fellow associate curator of ancient and Islamic art.
Among the galleries' top attractions are a 26th-Dynasty statuette of an Egyptian goddess crowned with a sun disk, an extensive collection of Iranian bronze objects and ceramics, Greek vases and larger-than-life-size Roman marble sculptures and five richly detailed, massive Assyrian relief panels that once lined the palace walls of the fearsome King Ashurnasirpal II, circa 850 BC.
"Ashurnasirpal's palace was excavated in the 1840s and the panels were on view in a private collection in England for over 100 years," Thomas said. "They came on the open market in the '60s and were bought for the museum by Anna Bing Arnold (a longtime County Museum of Art patron and trustee). We are exceedingly lucky to have them."
Thomas and Oldknow agreed that museum visitors will benefit from the proximity of the galleries of ancient art to other Ahmanson showrooms.
"They'll see the influence of the early works on later ones," Oldknow said, pointing to a long and low carved wooden Renaissance chest in an adjacent gallery. "You can see the classical influence here. The shape and carving imitate the style of the Roman sarcophagus in the other room. You can see the influence in the development of the 19th-Century Neoclassical style too, for instance, by looking at our Wedgwood."
Rather than being arranged chronologically, the newly reinstalled galleries are arranged by material (such as bronze or ceramic) or theme (such as funerary tools or deities), Thomas said.
"Our ancient art collections are not extensive enough to show each dynasty or each artistic development," she said, observing that modern and contemporary artworks currently draw bigger crowds and more donor dollars than the older artifacts.
"We do detect a kind of underswell of interest in ancient art, but we hope it will kind of grow. Having the galleries open is a real avenue for building this interest and hopefully for expanding our ancient art collections."