How did a tiny town in Germany become home to one of the world's greatest collections of Egyptian art and artifacts? 

Germany's Best-Kept Secret

How did a museum in Hildesheim, Germany, come to possess one of the world's greatest collections of Egyptian art and artifacts? "It's all very legal," assures Kurt Machens, mayor of Hildesheim, as he tells the story on how the Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum came to be.

He explains that Wilhelm Pelizaeus, a Hildesheim native, moved to Egypt at age 18 because of a chronic lung disease. He became a successful businessman and helped build the railway system in Egypt. He also amassed a huge collection of Egyptian art. At the time, it was legal in Egypt to divide with the Egyptian government any artifacts you excavated.

Pelizaeus wrote a letter to the pope, asking if the Vatican would be interested in the collection. When he didn't hear back after a few weeks, he offered it to the Roemer Museum in his hometown, to which he had already given some Egyptian antiquities. In 1907, Pelizaeus donated his entire collection to the city of Hildesheim. The city then erected a museum for the collection.

"It's one of the great — and not as well known as it should be — collections of Egyptian art in the world," says Katharine Lee, director of the Virginia Museum.

Since 1996, 2 million Americans have been introduced to the 200 best pieces of the 9,000-piece Egyptian collection while the Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum is undergoing renovations. Machens says he hopes the exhibition will entice more Americans to visit Hildesheim, a city in Northern Germany with a population of 120,000.

Dr. Annamaria Geiger, director of cultural affairs for the city of Hildesheim, Dr. Bettina Schmitz, curator of the Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum's Egyptian collection and Machens were all on hand for the opening of "Splendors."

Machens, who has visited the exhibition in all its North American venues, says the Virginia Museum's installation is "one of the best" he's seen.

Schmitz, who was viewing "Splendors" for the first time at the Virginia Museum, was also impressed with the display. "This is a beautiful display here," she says. "Everything comes together — the building, the collection, the hospitality — people are so happy to have the exhibition here, it makes me feel good."

"Splendors" also made her feel wistful. As curator of the Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum's Egyptian collection for 20 years, she had grown attached to many of the objects. "We miss it very much," she says. "It's nice to meet old friends

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