Of all the great medical practitioners on television, the greatest is of course ‘Doctor’ Leo Spaceman from 30 Rock. Among the many pearls of wisdom Dr. Spaceman dispensed on the show was “science is whatever we want it to be” (which he said to reassure Tracy Jordan that a DNA test could help him remember his ATM PIN).
Unfortunately, not every proponent of this naively optimistic view is so charming. For example, I recently encountered an excellent post (from last December; as usual, I am hopelessly out of date) by Amos Morris-Reich on the Met’s website about the use of Egyptian panel portraits for the study of ‘racial science.’ These portraits are some of my favorite objects from Egypt. They feature very individualized depictions (though the extent to which they are true portraits is an open, and interesting, question) that would be inserted into the sarcophagus once the sitter had shed his or her mortal coil.
Evidently back in the day Flinders Petrie used such portraits to support his ideas about ‘racial mixture’ (yet another stirring triumph for the founder of Egyptian archaeology). But Dr. Morris-Reich focuses on how these images were used by German racial scholars in the 1930s and 40s to identify ancient Jews in Egypt, usually by comparing them to Jewish caricatures.
What prompted this post is that the Met, like many museums, keeps track of where its objects have been published and post this information publicly so that scholars and other interested parties can use it. The Egyptian Art department at the Met does an excellent job of this, especially given how large their collection is and how often it has been published. But two of its panel portraits (09.181.4 and 11.139) were published in Antike Weltjudentum by Gerhard Kittel and Eugen Fischer in 1942. As Morris-Reich discusses, this book is horrifically anti-Semitic, and the Egyptian Art department was justifiably disgusted. But I applaud their solution; instead of just deleting the references they invited Dr. Morris-Reich to address the issue directly, and we are all better informed as a result. I encourage the Egyptian Art department to explore ways to include this information in the gallery displays of these splendid portraits.