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Margaret Mayo keeps watch over the Virginia Museum's ancient art collections.

Mummy's the Word


She may be an expert in ancient art, but Virginia Museum curator Margaret Ellen Mayo still had to do her homework to prepare for the museum's blockbuster exhibition "Splendors of Ancient Egypt." Mayo, the museum's curator of ancient art, specializes in Greek and Roman art. "I've had to learn all about Egypt, more than I knew," she says, adding that she has brushed up on the culture's art and history by reading numerous books and consulting Egyptology experts. She has written exhibit literature and lectures on Egyptian art throughout the run of the exhibition. She also will be a guide on a museum trip to Egypt next year. Mayo also evaluated "Splendors" before its arrival in Richmond and helped convince museum trustees of the exhibit's value. "The experience of 'Splendors' has been an exciting one and intellectually stimulating," she says. The show is the largest exhibition ever mounted at the museum both in terms of space and attendance — more than 124,000 people have either seen the show already or have reservations to do so. Mayo considers "Splendors" to be a career highlight, but "only in one sense — because it's the most popular [exhibition]." She cites other career achievements as being just as important — recently writing a handbook of ancient art and organizing "Egyptomania," an exhibit of the museum's own Egyptian collection, which is on view at the museum in conjunction with "Splendors." Besides the blockbuster appeal of "Splendors," the exhibition represents the return of a mummy to the museum. Many adults remember visiting the Virginia Museum as children and viewing Tjeby, a mummified Egyptian man, on display in the museum's Egyptian galleries. Tjeby had his tomb closed in 1984 after the museum decided that the coffin itself was the art, not the man inside. "Everybody that comes to the [museum's Egyptian galleries] says, 'Where's the mummy?'" Mayo says. "A broken-into tomb wasn't something we wanted to elevate." A photograph of Tjeby and an X-ray of the mummy remain on display at the museum. And with "Splendors," visitors can once again gaze upon the leathery remains of an ancient Egyptian with Ta-Bes, a mummy from the 6th-4th centuries B.C., borrowed from the Detroit Institute of Arts for "Splendors." Although Ta-Bes attracts his fair share of attention, to Mayo, the highlight of "Splendors" is an alabaster headrest made for use in a tomb. "It looks like modern art," she says "It's just exquisite." A graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School, Mayo went on to Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg. It was here, in a Greek language class, that she says she became "hooked" on ancient cultures. Mayo went on to earn her Ph.D. in classics from Rutgers University. After graduation, Mayo worked in California, dealing ancient artworks, some of which she sold to the Virginia Museum. She remembers that the museum's representatives one day told her they wouldn't buy more ancient art until they had hired a full-time curator. They then offered her the job. "I had never expected to come here," she says 21 years later. Asked to name the highlight of her job, Mayo says she gets the most satisfaction from touching the art. "It's a thrill," she says. "People don't realize their hands have acid in them," which can dull ancient, delicate artworks. "But because I'm required to, I suffer

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