Next Avenue Logo

A Seasoned Museum Curator Tells Ancient Stories in New Ways

Ramses the Great in virtual reality? Renée Dreyfus' ongoing passion for Egyptian art has helped make that happen at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

By Emily Wilson

When Renée Dreyfus was growing up in New York, her dad used to take her to museums. She was particularly fascinated by the Egyptian art she saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, captivated by the monumental sculptures and carved statues. Her imagination was also caught by the Greek myths her mother read her.

An ancient sculpture. Next Avenue, museum curator
Installation view of "Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs"   |  Credit: Image provided by World Heritage Exhibitions.

"Never in my lifetime did I ever think I could attain something as wonderful as I have now."

"It's hard to look at Egyptian art and not want to know more, and as I got older, I had this curiosity about how did we get to where we are today?" said Dreyfus, who studied philosophy as an undergrad at Boston University. "I always wanted to know that history of ideas. It's always been a fascination for me."

Dreyfus went to Brandeis and got her masters in Ancient Mediterranean Studies. One of her professors, Cyrus Gordon, was instrumental in her current career.

"He really inspired me to look for the interrelationships between the different peoples living in the Mediterranean area," she said. "The Greeks and the Romans, certainly, but then also Egypt and the Near East."

Steeped in Ancient History

Now Dreyfus (who got her doctorate in Near Eastern studies at the University of California, Berkeley, writing her dissertation on Assyrian carved ivories) looks at those relationships between ancient Mediterranean cultures as Curator of Antiquities at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which includes the de Young and the Legion of Honor. She loves the job so much she's been there for 45 years.

"Never in my lifetime did I ever think I could attain something as wonderful as I have now," she said in a conversation in the de Young's café. "Which is why I don't retire."

When Dreyfus started at the museum in 1977, there was no antiquities department — she created it. She has curated more than 20 exhibitions, starting with "Theophilos Hope D'Estrella: The Magic Lantern Man," a small exhibit on a deaf photographer, in 1978.

The next year she curated the de Young's blockbuster show, "Treasures of Tutankhamun," which 1.3 million Egypt-crazed visitors attended in four months. Thirty years later, in 2009, she organized "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" at the same museum. 

A woman standing in front of a exhibition. entrance. Next Avenue, museum curator
Renée Dreyfus, Distinguished Curator and Curator in Charge of Ancient Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and curator of "Last Supper in Pompeii: From the Table to the Grave" at the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco  |  Credit: Photography by Gary Sexton. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

With the de Young's current exhibition, "Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs" (through February 12), Dreyfus is once again exploring Egypt and the life of a pharaoh. But Ramses II had an astonishing 67-year reign compared to Tut, known as the "boy king," who become pharaoh at eight or nine, and died 10 years later.

Dreyfus says Ramses' mania for building temples and sculptures wasn't just about glory and fame, but also doing what he was supposed to do as a leader.


Bringing Technology to History

"In the main cosmology of ancient Egypt, you have good, and you have chaos," she said. "His battles would be fighting against the forces of chaos, to bring up about maat, which is kind of universal harmony."

The Ramses show has a virtual reality component. Dreyfus is open to all ways of getting people excited about learning, says Louise Chu, associate curator of Ancient Art. Chu describes Dreyfus, whom she's worked with since 1988 when she came to the museum as an intern, as a lot of fun with a "let's just do it" attitude.

"It never ceases to amaze me that every exhibition she does, she always tries to do a bit more, just something slightly different."

Dreyfus will do anything to make her shows better, Chu says, describing that during the exhibition "Gods in Color," the ancient Roman and Greek statues weren't purely white, so Dreyfus put up a part of a frieze (a decorative horizontal band) with color projected on it that would change through the day to give a sense of how colors changed with the fading of the light.

"She's a thinking curator and also an erudite and academic one, but she's very down to earth and with her finger on the pulse of, weirdly enough, technology," Chu said. "She's also a magician because there's always several rabbits in the hat and up the sleeve. It really is a privilege to learn from her. It never ceases to amaze me that every exhibition she does, she always tries to do a bit more, just something slightly different."

Andrew Stewart, professor of Ancient Mediterranean Art and Archaeology Emeritus in the departments of History of Art and Classics at the University of California at Berkeley, has also worked with Dreyfus for years, after first meeting her in the late 70s — he can't quite remember if it was at an archaeology lecture or at one of the parties afterward. They were both interested in ancient ivories, he said, and her knowledge and expertise were apparent, he says. They knew each other casually until she asked him for help with an exhibition.

A group of people wearing VR headsets. Next Avenue, museum curator
"Ramses and Nefertari: Journey to Osiris" at "Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs"  |  Credit: Image provided by World Heritage Exhibitions.

Connections Around the Globe

"She wanted to get the Germans to lend her items from Pergamon, a Greek city in Asia minor close to Troy and Istanbul, and a producer of high-end modern sculpture," Stewart said. "It was excavated by the Germans in the 70s, and it's still being excavated today — it's a huge site."

An ancient gold mask. Next Avenue, museum curator
Installation view of "Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs"  |  Credit: Image provided by World Heritage Exhibitions.

Dreyfus was interested in a frieze that showed the life of Telephos, the mythical founder of Pergamon, and claimed getting it would be a "hell of a coup," Stewart said. Her timing turned out to be perfect.

"Renée was able to find money and fly us to Berlin to negotiate," he said. "We took off in September 1989. Then the world turned itself upside down, and the Berlin Wall came down and Communism collapsed in eastern Europe. The entire government scene changed in three months flat and reached the stage where the Germans were interested in negotiating."

Dreyfus brought "Pergamon: The Telephos Frieze from the Great Altar" to the Legion of Honor in 1996.

Currently, Dreyfus is working on an exhibition scheduled for 2025 about the Etruscans that she's wanted to do for about 30 years. She's talking with scholars, visiting museums, setting up loans for pieces from Rome and Florence, as well as the British Museum and some institutions in the states. She talks about the show with enthusiasm undimmed after doing this work for more than four decades.

"We know so much more about the Etruscans now [so] this is going to be a far better show than it would have been years ago. There are more excavations, and we're finding more exciting tombs," she said. "From the ninth century until Roman times, the Etruscans were really the dominant culture, and they influenced Rome in so many ways, with engineering and architecture and temples."

She added, "This is the kind of thing people need to know about. I'm really excited about that show, and everything is very positive right now."

Emily Wilson lives in San Francisco. She writes for a number of outlets including Smithsonian.comDaily Beast48 HillsHyperallergicLatino USAWomen’s Media CenterCalifornia Magazine, and San Francisco Classical Voice. For years she taught adults getting their high school diplomas at City College of San Francisco. Read More
Next Avenue LogoMeeting the needs and unleashing the potential of older Americans through media
©2024 Next AvenuePrivacy PolicyTerms of Use
A nonprofit journalism website produced by:
TPT Logo