Chelsea Garunay

After a year of anxious interactions, losing ourselves in reveries of art in a public space can feel like a gentle first step back to the social lives we had before. Stepping in front of a work of art can create a controlled plane that exists somewhere between our private inner selves and public outer selves, a toe dip into the idea that we’re not just brains attached to Zoom cameras but full people who are shaped by our society and our history. What happens in that plane when you stand in front of the MFA’s statue of Lady Sennuwy? As symmetrical as she may seem, you may notice her sitting just right of center on her block, and the block left of center on its steel mount. You see the gray granodiorite, marbled through with a golden highlight that lends itself to the contrast of cool color backgrounds. Her portrait-ready expression and posture are relatable at a scale that is almost the same as your own, but you recognize that she conveys a much larger presence.

Left: A person holds red and purple paint sample squares behind the statue of Lady Sennuwy. Right: The statue of Lady Sennuwy against a dramatically lit purple backdrop.
Left: comparing paint samples behind statue of Lady Sennuwy in 2019. Right: statue of Lady Sennuwy in the 2019–2020 exhibition “Ancient Nubia Now.”

I accounted for these details when creating a pedestal and a framing background for Lady Sennuwy. To be an architectural designer is to know the quirks of an object, thinking through such material details in order to subdue distracting aspects and amplify the essential features. I also imagined the larger experience of seeing this object among a group of artworks. What do you see first, and how is that displayed to prime you for the rest of the gallery? What’s next, and how is that presented to recapitulate or contrast and build the story? Lady Sennuwy currently sits in the gateway to the new “Masterpieces of Egyptian Sculpture from the Pyramid Age” gallery. She prepares you for an intimate experience with the other sculptures there.

A dark and dramatically lit gallery with objects from Archaic Greece.A digital rendering of a gallery with ancient Egyptian sculptures placed throughout.
Three ancient Egyptian sculptures stand in individual yellow niches in a blue gallery. From left to right: a pharaoh, a god, and a woman; a pharaoh and queen; and fragments of three figures.
Top: Archaic Greek art on view in gallery 113 before 2021. Middle: a digital rendering of an initial concept for the “Masterpieces of Egyptian Sculpture from the Pyramid Age” gallery. Courtesy of the author. Bottom: the completed “Masterpieces of Egyptian Sculpture from the Pyramid Age" gallery, 113, in 2021.

Dual motives drive me when designing narrative art spaces: I want to allow you to confer with art and absorb art historical insight, and I want to envelop you in a full environment, spiriting you into a setting that is present and embodied but also transcendental. This is a collaborative project; I plan the design with others on my team—the curator, the graphic designer, and the interpretive planner. In the “Masterpieces” gallery, we wanted to create a shroud-like space that narrows the attention and allows one to commune directly with the art. Through sequencing, lighting, color, and architectural expressions, we provide a hallowed ground for some of the greatest pieces in the Museum’s collection. We constructed a threshold to emphasize the feeling of stepping into a hidden world and took advantage of existing columns from a previous installation to build niches into which we placed sculptures. Each pedestal is spotlit and painted the same color as the wall, so everything falls away but the sculpture in front of you.

Left: ancient Egyptian sculptures in glass cases line a dark and dramatically lit gallery space. Right: an orange bust of a man in a glass case.
Left: the completed “Masterpieces of Egyptian Sculpture from the Pyramid Age" gallery, 113, in 2021. Right: unknown artist, bust of Prince Ankhhaf (in situ in the “Masterpieces of Egyptian Sculpture from the Pyramid Age” gallery, 113), Egyptian, Old Kingdon, Dynasty 4, reign of Khafra, 2520–2494 BCE. Painted limestone. Harvard University–Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition. Photo courtesy of Victoria Foster.

The built environment can augment both the physical presence and emotional power of each work of art. I shape a space where Lady Sennuwy can disarm you with her beauty. The space also becomes a portal wherein her aura traverses multiple millennia to affect you in a gallery in Boston right now. To see very old art is to commune with something that assures us we have been through this before. Through reverence and trauma, art stands before us as a transmission from a maker who also experienced their own shifting circumstances.

It is a poignant exercise to design an ancient Egyptian art gallery at a moment when the passage of time itself is shapeless and hard to grasp. Designing spaces is a way to structure, comprehend, and even memorialize the flow of our experience. As a designer, I want to ensure that the experiences one has back in the Museum are affecting, because seeing art in person is both a treat and a privilege. Growing up first-generation, I rarely went to museums. But the times I did go were absolutely imprinting and aspirational. When people have the opportunity to see art, I want the whole experience to be worthy of that attention.

Black and white: the statue of Lady Sennuwy lies in the ground with sand covering the figure up to its shoulders.
ancient Egyptian statue of a woman sitting against a blue wall next to cases with sculptures of heads.
Top:  Mohammedani Ibrahim Ibrahim, Kerma: Statue of Lady Sennuwy Emerging, December 16, 1913. Photograph. Harvard University–Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition. Bottom: statue of Lady Sennuwy in the “Faces of Ancient Egypt” gallery, 113A, in 2021.

Chelsea Garunay is senior designer, Exhibitions and Design.