This post comprises a review of the Cuban collection of Egyptian antiquities housed in the Museo Nacional des Belles Artes, in Havana. I visited the collection on the 24 May 2017. The museum is easy to access in central Havana, close to the Capitol and major tourist areas. Entry to the Asturian Building, which houses the Egyptian and other Old World antiquities collections, was four Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) when I visited (one convertible peso is equivalent to one dollar). The 2015 guide to the Egyptian collection was a further 20 CUC, but is well written in Spanish and English and was certainly worth the investment. Despite some minor issues with the display, the Egyptian collection contains some real gems and is not to be missed if you happen to be visiting Cuba.
The location and origins of the Cuban Egyptian collection
The Egyptian collection of the Cuban Museo Nacional des Belles Artes is housed in Havana in the building once belonging to the Asturian Society of Havana. This is a large and beautiful building close to the Capitol, where the 114 pieces of the Egyptian collection share a large hall with the Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities.
Antiquities collected by Joaquin Guma Herrera, Earl of Lagunillos form the core of the Egyptian collection, supplemented by some small subsequent donations. These later donations include a predynastic Naqada II vessel and 25th Dynasty lapis heart scarab donated by Christian Loeben, curator of the Museum August Kestnet of Hannover, and a Third Intermediate Period coffin and cartonnage donated by the Republic of Egypt in 1974.
The Earl of Lagunillas’ collection was donated to Cuba in 1955 and first displayed in 1956 with the assistance of Professor Francisco Prat Puig of the Universidad de Oriente. After the revolution of 1959 the museum was reorganised and became a Museum of Fine Arts. The collection was reorganised again and moved to its current location by architect José Linaresin in 2001.
The Asturian Building (below) is a beautiful structure and the Egyptian antiquities are housed in a hall where Asturian Society gatherings once took place. Although the hall is beautiful, information about the exhibits is limited. There are no accession numbers on the labels, which typically only include date, material, object type and case number. Where relevant the labels also include those ancient individuals named or represented on the object. Unfortunately the museum has a strict policy against photography so I am unable to provide images of the objects as exhibited.
Sadly the exhibits in the museum aren’t laid out either thematically or chronologically. In one case a Roman period stela, Roman bronze statues of Osiris and Isis and several scarabs of earlier date sit next to canopic jars from the Middle and New Kingdoms. Other bronze statues of divinities are located in a different case in another part of the exhibition, and stelae are scattered across several cases with relief fragments from multiple periods. This apparently haphazard approach to display may be due to a current reorganisation. Some pieces were absent and work was clearly ongoing when I visited. The lighting could also do with improvement. The signage would benefit from more background information for the casual tourist and the inclusion of interesting aspects of the antiquities (such as detailed provenance and links with pieces in other museums) that have been discovered by the authors of the recent catalogue (see below). The present situation does not do justice to the quality of the objects, but hopefully ongoing restoration and future redisplay will provide a remedy.
An excellent catalogue
Happily much more information, including the accession numbers and some excellent pictures of the objects, can be found in the accompanying catalogue (Sosa et al. 2015). The images (by David Rodriguez Camacho of Fotografo Arte) are particularly good, well laid out and very clear, and combined with images of objects from other collections as necessary. This is particularly useful given the occasionally poor lighting in the gallery.
In addition to the images, the catalogue provides useful information for both the casual visitor and those needing more details of provenance and the origins of the collection. After describing the history of the collection, the catalogue is laid out thematically. Each section provides background information regarding the objects presented in it, and there is enough in these sections for the non-specialist to understand the context of the artefacts in the exhibition. Meanwhile experienced Egyptologists will find considerable information about each artefact in the well-researched catalogue entries. So thorough were the authors that even though almost all the artefacts in the museum were purchased on the open market and had minimal provenance, several catalogue entries describe the tombs or temples where the objects originated, thanks to dogged archaeological detective-work. A prime example are the three fragments (MNBA Havana 94-25, 94-26 and 94-27) from the tomb of Irenakhti/Irenptah/Iry, which were purchased without provenance by the Earl of Lagunillas and subsequently identified as coming from tomb G 2391 at Giza, south of the causeway to Khafre’s pyramid.
As the catalogue makes clear, the Egyptian antiquities in the Museo Nacional des Belles Artes are a fine example of a mid-20th century private collection. There are shabtis, scarabs, fragments of relief (mostly from false doors), stelae, statues and statue fragments, Greco-Roman period encaustic mummy portraits, canopic jars, a wooden coffin and mummy cartonnage, and a range of Late Period bronze statues. So far so typical! But a list of what are, Egyptologically speaking, the ‘usual suspects’ doesn’t do justice to their quality. Many of the antiquities are very good examples of their type, well preserved and beautifully made. The knowledge of the experts (notably Bernard von Bothner and William C. Hayes) whom the Earl of Lagunillas consulted on his purchases, is evident in the quality of many of the pieces.
The Cuban collection also contains several real gems. There is a very fine small relief of Seti I (MNBA Havana 94-36), and the head of a granodiorite statue of a Pharaoh (MNBA Havana 94-37) that has been identified as Senusret I of the 12th Dynasty. Although somewhat damaged it is physically similar to other images of that Pharaoh such as BM EA 44 and Berlin ÄM 1205 (above left) and an important addition to the corpus of Middle Kingdom royal statuary.
Both Seti and Senusret are trumped by a black basalt head of Amun (MBNA Havana 94-120) that has become the emblem of the collection. Its photograph (right) is a good exemplar of the quality of the imagery in the catalogue, which more than compensates for the inability to take photographs in the gallery. Dating from the Late Period, this Theban statue fragment has two different surface treatments. The flesh is highly polished, while the crown is coarsely pecked, probably to take a covering of a different material. Traces suggest it was once covered in gold, although other precious stones, metals or inlays may have been used for different elements. The head has been matched to a body in the Louvre (E 12988), which was found during excavations in 1927, attached to the north wall of the corridor on the west side of the temple at Medmud. The archaeological context suggested that the piece was broken when Coptic extensions were made in the temple.
Other key objects in the collection include two reliefs that have been matched with other known fragments. MBNA Havana 94-35 is a beautiful polychrome fragment from the tomb of Neferu (TT 319), wife of Mentuhotep II. The fragment in Havana matches a photo in the Theban Expedition Journal from the 1925-6 season of the Metropolitan Museum excavations at Deir el-Bahri, but the artefact shown in the Journal has not been located. The catalogue authors suggest that it may be in Cairo.
More interesting for aficionados of British Egyptology is MBNA Havana 94-15, an 18th Dynasty scene showing the purification of the deceased outside the tomb (below right). This piece has been matched with one in Birmingham Museum (n. 68866) and the combined image shows a typical New Kingdom scene of mourning before the tomb. Sadly the tomb is unknown as both reliefs were purchased on the antiquities market, but the style suggests it came from Saqqara.
One exception to the purchased artefacts is the 22nd Dynasty coffin and cartonnage of Tashebet (MNBA Havana 94-39), excavated by Labib Habachi from the tomb of Kheruef (TT192) in the Asassif. This beautiful coffin-set was donated to Cuba by Egypt in 1974, in gratitude for Cuba’s assistance with the archaeological work required by the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Both coffin and mummy case are beautiful examples of Third Intermediate Period work.
Complementing Tashebet’s coffins is the Book of the Dead of Bakenweren (MNBA Havana 94-47), which dates to the same period and was found or purchased by William Franklin Hood in Luxor in 1858. It passed through the collections of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Brummer before being purchased by the Earl of Lagunillas in 1949. Like the other artefacts it is a lovely example of its type and is well-covered in the catalogue (see the featured image above).
Among the many other artefacts special mention must be made of a bronze and paste Uraeus (MNBA Havana 94-115), dating from the Late Period and probably attached to a white or atef crown. A Ptolemaic coffin of a falcon (MNBA Havana 94-56) is also worth noting for its similarity to examples of animal coffins from the recent Manchester Museum Animal Mummies exhibition. Of the many Egyptian alabaster jars in the collection, it is likely that MNBA Havana 94-82 and 94-87 originated in the Hatnub quarries, which were very active in the 11th Dynasty when these artefacts were made. Another alabaster cosmetic jar still contains the oily remains of its original cosmetic or unguent (MNBA Havana 94-89) and would be a prime candidate for further scientific investigation. Among the stelae there is a good example of a ‘hearing ear’ stela (MNBA Havana 94-30) with carved ears to help the invoked god hear the prayer, and a polychrome Roman stela without text (MNBA Havana 94-13).
The Cuban collection of Egyptian artefacts in the Museo Nacional des Belles Artes is a fantastic small collection. The small defects in its display (which will hopefully be rectified soon) do not detract from the quality of the objects individually and as a group, or their important relationships with other 20th century collections. The collection catalogue is a fantastic example of its type, with enough background information for the causal visitor as well as detailed information on individual objects, their provenance, relationships with other pieces and international ties. If you happen to be visiting Cuba, the Egyptian collection should definitely be on your list, and if you are able to obtain a copy of the catalogue (which sadly appears rarely on the usual websites) it’s well worth doing so.
Much of the information and three of the images in this blog are taken from the catalogue of the collection:
Sosa, M. A. Lastra, A. C. and Morfini, I. 2015. La Coleccion Egipcia del Museo Nacional des Belles Artes de la Habana.
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