Changing headdresses of Queen Tiye
Changing headdresses of Queen Tiye Credit: Caroline Thibault

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The tomb of the beautiful one remains undiscovered. “The beautiful one” is the apt name for Nefertiti, the iconic ancient Egyptian queen whose face and headdress are universally recognizable. 

At the National Geographic Museum, Nefertiti is front and center as a featured queen in its Queens of Egypt exhibition. Visitors flock to her bust, one of the most widely known pieces of Egyptian art in the world. Her beauty radiates through the hallways. Queens of Egypt is a love letter to the women of a much-lauded ancient society that endlessly fascinates. 

“Focusing on the queens, it felt like the right time to do that,” says Kathryn Keane, director of the National Geographic Museum. “We’ve given like 15,000 grants for scientific research since our founding 130 years ago, and some of the recent projects that we’ve funded have been around the queens. There are several tombs that have not been discovered. We don’t know where Nefertiti is, we don’t know what happened to Cleopatra. There are some mysteries still to be solved around the legacies of the queens of Egypt.”

Keane says women were not equal to men in ancient Egypt, and still lived in a patriarchal society. But there were circumstances within the power structures of Egypt, she says—an obsession with keeping power in the family and in the bloodline—that allowed these women to attain power. 

Egyptian mythology and culture are the throughlines that hold the exhibition together, plopping ancient Egypt down in the District and telling its story from a woman’s perspective. The exhibition focuses on Egypt’s most famous queens, like Nefertiti, Nefertari, Hatshepsut, and Cleopatra, and the harrowing accounts of their lives. Hatshepsut, for example, reigned as the fifth pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, ruling Egypt for 22 years. As one of the only women to ever be crowned pharaoh, she was often portrayed with masculine clothing and a false beard—a show of power.

The exhibit spans hundreds of years of history, centering on the New Kingdom era of Egypt, primarily from 1539–1075 B.C., with a few objects that date before and after that time period.

“We want people to feel like they’re walking into the pages of National Geographic, like they’ve been to Egypt,” says Fredrik Hiebert, curator of the exhibition and world-voyaging archaeologist-in-residence at the National Geographic Society.

The display snakes around the building, leading its audience through eras and queens, from Ahmose-Nefertari to Tiye, and gods and goddesses, from Bastet to Mut. It has the feel of an ancient tomb and makes good on its intended purpose to sweep visitors away.

Many of Queens’ 300-plus artifacts come from the collections of the Museo Egizio (which translates to “Egyptian Museum”) in Turin, Italy. 

The showcase is full of highlights, from perfume stations in which people can smell the sweet scents of blue lotus and cardamom to the immersive 3D tomb experience of Queen Nefertari, complete with glasses. 

The four statues of the goddess Sekhmet serve as a center of gravity, immovable forces that pull in museumgoers. Hiebert likens the weight of the stunning granodiorite statues to that of a midsize car.

The fourth and most complete Sekhmet statue is the heaviest, weighing nearly 6,000 pounds. It’s the only one of the statues with Sekhmet’s solar disk headpiece still perfectly preserved. 

A structural engineer had to come evaluate the floors to make sure they could support the weight of the Sekhmet statues, says exhibition content specialist Erin Branigan. While the fourth Sekhmet is the heaviest piece in the showcase, one of Branigan’s favorites is tiny: a ring with a gold band and a frog carved from carnelian, a semiprecious stone associated with Sekhmet that naturally occurs in Egypt’s deserts. “Because of its bright orange-red color, carnelian symbolizes the heat of the sun, as well as life and health,” she says. 

The section of Queens of Egypt that meditates on death and mummification is perhaps the most breathtaking. Find remarkably preserved sarcophagi and sarcophagus fragments in a hall of mirrors, and the real mummified remains of an unidentified person.

“For me as the curator, it’s always a challenge to decide, are we going to exhibit human remains or not,” Hiebert says. “We are definitely not trying to exhibit a mummy or mummified knees as some sort of sensationalism. But we will put human remains as part of an exhibition if it’s part of telling the story. To see the wooden sarcophagi and the stone sarcophagi, and then realize those are the houses for this very elaborately wrapped and mummified person, I think it’s incredibly powerful and useful to show that.”

Hiebert says he is generally not in favor of showing human remains, but for him, this exhibition on ancient Egypt called for greater understanding. “The Egyptians were specifically going through this elaborate array and the reason that they did the mummification was because the body is the epicenter of the whole concept of the afterlife.”

An essential belief at this time in ancient Egypt was that a person could not reach the afterlife if their body did not survive, hence the need for preservation and mummification. The display gets into the nitty-gritty details about how exactly ancient Egyptians performed the process of mummification. Intricately carved funerary urns called canopic jars held the lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines, and were filled with the remaining blood and other bodily fluids of the deceased.

While curators took great care to honor this concentration on death and the afterlife, they’ve also added points of light and levity. Visitors can learn how to spell their name in hieroglyphs and play an ancient Egyptian board game. The children who stop by are having a blast playing it.

Hiebert says school groups, families, and diverse mixes of people are visiting Queens of Egypt. “There’s no question it’s been a big hit,” he says, adding that the National Geographic Museum has welcomed an increase in the number of guests during the first couple of months of the show. Thanks to its increased foot traffic, the exhibition’s closing was extended from Sept. 2 to Sept. 15.

Exploring this art and culture and time and place with Queens of Egypt is a great way to spend an hour or two or three. The exhibition will leave museumgoers yearning to learn more.

“It’s in our DNA here, this whole concept of exploration and trying to know everything that there is to know about our past because it really informs our future,” Keane says. “We are desperate to learn about our ancestors.”

In the meantime, Hiebert says the National Geographic Society will continue to fund exploration in Egypt and elsewhere. “Our group did not find the tomb of Cleopatra or the tomb of Nefertiti, but we’re just going to keep looking.” 

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