The University of Memphis Art Museum opened in 1981 with a modest name: it was known as the University Gallery.

Clearly, a museum outclasses a gallery, and over the past 35 years, the arguably underrated institution located just south of Central Avenue on the U of M campus has made itself worthy of the splashier designation.

The museum has accumulated some 5,000 objects, including many startling works by Memphis and modern artists, in addition to antiquities and cultural artifacts from its Egyptian and Ancient African collections.

Over the past 35 years, the museum has hosted 475 exhibitions, according to museum director Leslie Luebbers, who says she researched the figure “out of sheer curiosity”.

That’s an impressive number, but perhaps no exhibit has been as broad as the “anniversary” show that opens on Friday. The exhibition is titled “It May Surprise You”; according to U of M publicists, it is a “hidden gems” exhibit that features “rarely or never seen” items, as well as “newly acquired pieces”.

Want diversity and variety? “This May Surprise You” aims to please. “There is variety, but there is also depth,” said Luebbers, director of the museum since 1990. In fact, some of the items on display include:

  • Two complete Japanese armours.
  • The work of Josef Albers, the German-American whose post-war “Tribute to the Square” paintings and drawings depicting, yes, squares, still intrigue some visitors.
  • A 16th century illustrated book on Aztec culture.
  • And – best of all? — an Egyptian snake mummy.

None of the nearly 100 objects in the exhibition have been on display before – or if they were, it was so long ago, no one remembers.

“After 35 years, it was time to get to grips with some of the material we have,” Luebbers said. “We want to make friends again with material that we have been hiding for many years.

“Also,” she added, “one of the points we’re trying to make with this show is that we need more space.” She said the museum has been almost a hoarder in recent years, filling old offices and other spaces with artwork. (Relief may come when the U of M’s new music building opens, which should open up nearby space previously dedicated to music education.)

Luebbers said the museum had “a teaching mission.” She acknowledged that “all museums will say that, but ours is a bit more specific. We have a lot of Ks across 12 visits because the Egyptian and African collections have a lot of appeal.” After all, who doesn’t love a mummy?

In museums, “you can touch the past,” Luebbers said. “You can walk into the Egyptian gallery and see something that someone made 3,000 or 4,000 years ago. And sometimes you know their names, and now you know how they lived and how they were regarded.”

“It May Surprise You”

Friday-Dec. 17 at the University of Memphis Museum of Art. Opening: 4:30-7:30 p.m. Friday.

Museum hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Admission fee.

Visit memphis.edu/amum.

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