The Egyptian Sculpture Room
The image shown here, from 1825, is of the colossal bust of the Younger
Memnon in the Egyptian Sculpture Room, part of the Townley Gallery
in the original buildings of the British Museum.1 Raised on a pedestal,
the bust sits among other antiquities of Egyptian provenance. While the
Egyptian Sculpture Room contains only stone objects, other sorts of ob-
jects such as wooden artifacts, papyri, and mummies are displayed in
other rooms, alongside similar kinds of objects. The colossal bust rests
between two elevated windows, the only sources of light in the gallery.
The engraving shown here frames the Egyptian Sculpture Room between
columns that support a pediment of unmistakably Greek form. On the
far side of the room, a well-dressed gentleman and lady study the display.
We are looking at a picture of large antiquities in the gallery of a famous
museum. What else is there to say? The kind of room portrayed in this
image has become so familiar that it seems not to need explanation. Yet a
cursory survey of the quality of the space represented in this image shows
that quite a bit is happening.
Most obviously, the gallery depicted here is a space of visual exhibition.
The structure of the museum display privileges one particular sensory fac-
ulty (sight) while prohibiting others (such as touch). Organized as spec-
tacle, the gallery creates a palpable sense of separation between the viewer
and the objects. One might understand this separation as an instance of
what Martin Heidegger once described in terms of “the world picture,”
meaning not “a picture of the world, but the world grasped as picture.”2
The image of the Egyptian Sculpture Room is a threefold illustration of
this insight. First, the “world grasped as picture” oﬀers a kind of human
subjectivity constituted in relation to nonhuman objects. Heidegger’s cri-
tique begins from his reading of the German word for “representation,”
Vorstellung (lit. “setting forth”). In Heidegger’s reading, the language by