The Menil Collections’s holdings of art from the Ancient World consist of Paleolithic artifacts and objects primarily from the civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean, Egypt, and the Near East. Numbering about 600 objects, the collection spans an impressive 20,000 years of artistic achievements.
John and Dominique de Menil collected the majority of the museum’s ancient objects between the 1950s and 1970s as part of their art and education projects with the University of St. Thomas and Rice University. Dominique de Menil, who considered herself a “frustrated archaeologist,” was the primary advocate for this part of the Menil’s permanent collection. She was fascinated with the way personal possessions and ceremonial objects intimately reveal our shared humanity. Her passion for understanding the past through objects was reflected in her installation of ancient world gallery, which she oversaw in 1987. Reflecting continuing research on the permanent collection, the galleries were reinstalled in 2018, and regular rotations highlight recent investigations.
Dating to about 15,000–9,000 BCE, a fragment from an Upper Paleolithic implement made of bone is the oldest object in the collection. Marble figures and stoneware from the Cycladic Islands, bronze votive figurines from the eastern Mediterranean and Near East, and a significant group of ceramics from ancient Greece and Italy are particular strengths of the collection. Ancient Egyptian art is another area of concentration, including artifacts such as a sunken relief featuring the Egyptian god Horus dating to 1295–1186 BCE. A guardian funerary sculpture of a menacing, snarling winged lion and an exquisitely detailed amphora exemplify Etruscan artistic sophistication during the 7th and 6th centuries BCE.
Representations of Black Africans in antiquity are a significant leitmotif. This collecting focus developed in concert with The Image of the Black in Western Art, a research project and photographic archive initiated by Dominique and John de Menil in 1960. The de Menils’ frustration with the persistence of segregation in the southern United States ignited this interest and their support of scholars like Frank Snowden (1911–2007) at Howard University and Ladislas Bugner in Paris. In her preface to the first published volume, Dominique de Menil wrote: “It was an impulse prompted by an intolerable situation: segregation as it still existed in spite of having been outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1954. Many works of art contradicted segregation.” The project, which in 1994 moved to Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, has generated multiple large books cataloguing the history of representations of people of African descent from Classical antiquity into the 20th century.
The Collections Analysis Collaborative (CAC) was a special research and educational initiative conducted between 2015 and 2020 at the Menil Collection in partnership with Rice University and the University of Houston-Clear Lake. Participating students from Rice University shared their preliminary research at the end of the academic semesters and contributing scholars presented their findings in Collaborative Futures for Museum Collections: Antiquities, Provenance, and Cultural Heritage, a three-day international conference held at the Menil Collection and Rice University (October 17–19, 2016). The project culminated with the anthology Object Biographies: Collaborative Approaches to Ancient Mediterranean Art (2021), which highlights the research of thirteen professors and museum professionals on issues of cultural heritage, collecting histories, authenticity, and connoisseurship.