When the Ashmolean Museum re-opened two years ago after its multi- million pound renovation, critical opinion could have swung either way. Though architect Rick Mather left Sir Charles Cockerell's 1845 neoclassical structure intact, he replaced the Victorian additions at the rear with a six-story ultra- modern extension that made little attempt to blend in with the original structure or with the surrounding buildings. His audacity paid off.
Although there is nothing discreet about Mather's design, the 34 new galleries opening on to an 80-foot atrium feel so airy and light that it is as if they float in a transparent cage. Even from diehard traditionalists there was scarcely a squeak.
This week the museum completed the second phase of the renovation when it opened six new galleries for the display of material from Ancient Egypt and Nubia. Again Mather is the architect and again the project is a success - but for almost the opposite reason. This time Mather's intervention is so restrained that the galleries look as though they've always been just where they are and looked just as they do. This is as it should be, for they are located on the ground floor of the original building in a space that is contiguous to - and in many ways completes - the run of galleries devoted to ancient Greek, Roman and Cretan civilisations.
With new lighting and floor-to-ceiling glass cases, the display is presented along a circular route in broadly chronological order, beginning with a pre-dynastic (3300 BC) limestone carving of the fertility god Min, (which, in its damaged state looks as mysterious and forbidding as something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark), to uncannily lifelike portraits set into mummy cases made in the first century BC. Along the way we encounter a massive sandstone shrine of the Nubian King Taharqa found in the temple complex at Kawa in what is today the Sudan (690-664 BC). It is carved on the outside with a scene in which the deceased heart is weighted in judgment before a ram-headed deity to determine whether his soul will live for ever or be fed to the crocodile god whose head, crisply carved in hard stone, is displayed nearby.
In my experience, the low point of any visit to an encyclopaedic museum such as the Ashmolean is the display of Egyptian mummies. Wrapped in their grisly bandages and encased in wooden coffins decorated with painted hieroglyphics, they all look exactly alike. For reasons I've never understood, dozens of these repellent things are usually laid out for our inspection when we'd get the point with one or two. Here, the curator has shown commendable restraint and the designer considerable ingenuity in the display of a single full-size mummy. It belongs to a Theban priest who died around 770 BC whose name - I can't resist telling you - was Djeddjehutyiuefankh (known locally as Jed). He lies inside his painted wooden coffin in the middle of the gallery, while suspended from the ceiling above him are the inner and outer mummy cases and the massive coffin lid. We can thus see at a glance how the separate components of mummy were put together.
A section on the monotheist pharaoh Akhenaten and his queen Nefertiti in their garishly decorated palace at Amara conveys a sense of something often missing from galleries that show Egyptian art and artefacts - a sense of how colourful Egyptian society was, both in the richly decorated interiors of palaces and private homes and also in the polychrome exteriors of tombs and temples. Ceramic pots painted with stylised floral motifs in a soft grey-blue shade show the beauty of utilitarian objects, while a cluster of grapes made of coloured glass can have had no practical purpose and so must have been made simply to amuse or delight.
Nothing is more viscerally moving than the mummy of a two-year-old boy who died of pneumonia during the Roman occupation around 80 AD. The intricately folded linen wrappings inset with gilded studs identify the child as a member of the Greek-speaking community whose funeral practices followed the Roman custom of insetting a painted portrait of the deceased on the surface of the mummy case. Because the deceased here was a child, there was no portrait, so contemporary artist Angelica Palmer has drawn images produced by recent cat-scans of the mummified corpse on to multiple sheets of glass to create a three dimensional representation of what lies underneath the linen wrapping. The result is a ghostly image of great beauty that seems to appear and disappear as you move across the glass panels.
And speaking of ghosts, as always with the Egyptians, voices from beyond the grave haunt these galleries. In addition to laundry lists written on papyrus, and a note explaining a man's absence from work (scorpion bite), we see the last will and testament of a lady who disinherited three of her eight children for the excellent reason that they did not treat her well during her lifetime. (I hope my own children are reading this.) In a spell from the Book of the Dead, a soul takes account of his life and concludes "I have not made anyone miserable nor have I made anyone weep. I have not killed nor have I made anyone suffer." Amen.
Once again, Mather and his team have done the museum proud. Thanks are due to Lord Sainsbury who funded the £5 million project and to director Christopher Brown, who saw it completed in less than two years. Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities Liam McNamara and his team have created the consistently lively installation and labels.