Did you know that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has its own mascot? Many people are not aware of this, but it is true. The Met has a mascot and his name is William. William the Hippo. He was obtained by the museum exactly 100 years ago in 1917 and has become one of the most widely recognized pieces of the Met’s collection. People fly into New York from all over the globe just to see William’s eight inch body. William wasn’t always this popular. In fact, he spent most of his life being unknown to the general public.
William was found in the tomb of “The Steward, Senbi” in a village called Meir in northern Egypt somewhere between the years 1961 and 1878 BC. During this time Senusret I and Senusret II were in reign. They were the second and fourth pharaohs of the Twelfth Dynasty of Egypt, a part of the bigger umbrella called The Middle Kingdom of Egypt. Senusret I was the son of Amenemhat I, the founder of the Twelfth Dynasty. One of Senusret I’s biggest accomplishments was the expedition he lead to the Third Cataract in Southern Egypt. But it was during the Twelfth Dynasty that Egyptian literature was refined. It was said that literature was not even recorded in the written form until the start of the Twelfth Dynasty. They began experimenting with hieroglyphics and manipulating them to change the meaning. They discovered that disfiguring or removing certain hieroglyphs would change the meaning of what was trying to be said, for better or for worse. Many other literary discoveries were made during this period. The Twelfth century is also known as the most stable time in Egypt before the New Kingdom and has been called “the apex of the Middle Kingdom” by professional Egyptologists.
Not only was the literature thriving during the Twelfth Dynasty, but the art world was thriving as well. The construction of the famous pyramids continued after an almost 100 year hiatus. The women of this time were all very close to the reigning pharaohs therefore some of the most beautiful of all ancient Egyptian jewelry was produced for these women during this time. The Middle Kingdom was a period where all members of the Egyptian community, no matter what your ranking, were producing art, new kinds of art. Memorial chapels and statues showing people praying first became popular in this period. The Middle Kingdom allowed art to expand, evolve and grow. Items associated with magic made their first appearance during this time. Some pieces such as curved hippopotamus tusks were said to protect children and pregnant women. During this period many changes in the afterlife rituals took place, mainly about the objects present in the tombs, which is where William was found.
William is the perfect example of the extremely detailed iconographic pieces of art that came from this era. Animals were a common subject at the time because of the Egyptians appreciation for nature and the natural world. Hippopotamus figures were often decorated with water plants which is said to have symbolized the Nile river and it’s revitalizing properties. William is a little different because he is decorated with lotus flowers, buds and leaves. That is supposed to represent his surroundings as an animal who lived in the lowlands of the Nile. William seems charming and friendly, but hippo’s were actually the most feared animal by the Egyptian. They saw it as the most dangerous animal of the time. When William was found three of his legs were broken off. They were restored by the museum, but they were broken in the first place because the Egyptians thought this would prevent him from being dangerous in the afterlife.
William is made from a material called Egyptian faience which is made of powdered quartz covered in a glass coating. Faience is very malleable and can actually be molded with just human hands. Glass and faience share many characteristics except for the fact that glass is much more rigid. Faience was very popular in Ancient Egypt because it was a cheaper substitute to most semi-precious stones. However faience was in no way valued less because it was cheaper. It was equally appreciated because of its utter beauty. This beautiful turquoise hippopotamus did not always have the name William. In the early 1900’s a man named Captain H.M. Raleigh had a photo of the hippo in his family’s home that they simply began to refer to as William. Raleigh wrote an article about the hippo, where he shared that his family called it William, and it got published for Punch magazine in the 1930’s. After people read the article, the nickname just stuck.
I chose to write about William the Hippo because I was immediately attracted to it when I first saw it. It is such a beautiful color. This year happens to be the 100th anniversary of the year it became a part of the Met’s collection. For the celebration the museum created the temporary display, Conversation between Two Hippos in which the original William is face to face with a ceramic hippo made by artist Carl Walters in 1936. The two hippos stand alone on their own pillars in the center of the room. Another reason I chose to write about the hippo is because the display itself was so unique.
The artist who created William thousands of years ago definitely did not know that this mini blue hippo would have the following it has today. William is one of the most recognized pieces in the museum’s entire collection. He has the largest section in the gift shop featuring pins, scarves, bowties, cuff links, Christmas ornaments, backpacks and much more.
William has made himself a household item. He is present in children’s lives as they snuggle with him at night and he is present in adults lives as they close their cuffs with a little William. Art is meant to be mixed with life and I think this is a great example of how life and art should be one.