The Mummy Hunters, Part 2

Posted by jdg | 7:44 AM |

After sleuthing around on the web a bit to figure out which museums within 100 miles had mummies, we headed for the Ohio border and the lovely city of Toledo. On the drive down, the kid wanted to know how all these mummies came to America after they were buried in Egypt, and what followed was a question-filled discussion that stretched the limits of my knowledge of tomb robbers, Arab mysticism, the Crusades, and medieval medicine. I tried to explain that mummies weren't always treated like they are now in museums, that they were once stacked in leaky boats and ground up into medicinal powders or even displayed in rich peoples' living rooms. She seemed perfectly willing to accept a past where everything was more chaotic: where men snuck into silent tombs to rip jewels from linen-wrapped corpses, where those dessicated corpses were ground into a powder to cure some old woman's rheumatism in Marseilles, a world where mummies were sold on the black market and anyone with enough coin could have one so they ended up all over the world. Even in Toledo.



The Toledo Museum of Art (in addition to having free admission) has a truly exceptional collection (particularly if you're into glass art). The museum is totally worth a trip. The ancient collection was very impressive in its sky-lit neoclassical gallery:


Unfortunately, the Toledo museum's mummy was in storage during our visit, but the boy doesn't really know the difference between mummy cases, statues and actual bodies. He called all the coffins "mummies," walking around with his arms extended and mumbling, "Mmmmmmmm. . ." They were both pretty impressed with the 2,600-year-old coffin of Ta'mit ("She-Cat") because she had a green painted face. They looked all over for the head of poor Pharaoh Tanwetamani:


The girl gets excited seeing things in a new museum that remind her of what she's learned about at "our museum," from familiar hieroglyphics to the names of all the Egyptian gods and she loved spotting them in the artwork on display in Toledo (her favorites: Ma'at and Ammit, who she called "the Gobbler"). She has learned all about the funerary objects, and was quick to identify a slew of shawabti in one glass case. Shawabti are the tiny figurines of workers inscribed with a spell from the Book of the Dead that were buried with dead nobles, and the kids love them because they look like little toys; we tell stories of how they come to life like Lilliputians to make mischief all night. She says she would like to have some shawabtis to clean her room for her. I considered casting a spell from the Book of the Dead on all the Egyptian toy figures I've bought her.

At the museum store we bought a copy of David Macaulay's Pyramid and the whole drive back to Detroit I heard her interpreting the illustrations of pyramid construction for her brother.

* * * * *

The next mummy we visited was at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology in nearby Ann Arbor. The museum's collection used to be displayed in the rambling rooms of an old stone mansion on State Street and I wasted a lot of time there during law school. Today the museum's collection is spread throughout a beautiful addition, and the Egyptian collection shines. Here another impressive green-faced coffin sits open, with two images of the goddesess Nut and Amentet inside. This coffin even has its own Facebook page.


But the real treat of the Egyptian collection at the Kelsey was the museum's mummy, housed in a quiet little cave built into a wall. It's the mummy of a little boy or girl around three-years old. The museum acquired the mummy with little provenance from an organization that had purchased the little guy (or girl) on the black market in the 1860s. I'm sure you can imagine the questions I heard about the mummy of a three-year-old. I had to hear talk about the "little kid mummy" for weeks.

Poor Gram, I think we bored him with all that Shawabti talk:


 I have to throw in another shot from the Villa of Mysteries reproduction at the Kelsey. It just makes such a cool background:


The only other mummy on display in Michigan was the mummy that captured my own imagination in childhood, across the state in Kalamazoo. On the way, of course we had to stop at this pyramid:


When I jokingly suggested we go inside to try to find a mummy, both kids seemed legitimately scared to do so. Some mummy hunters. They prefer mummies in museums to those inside a local furniture company's former corporate development center that for some reason was designed to look like an actual pyramid:


On the drive down to Kalamazoo, the girl asked me to tell (for the thousandth time) what it was like for me to visit the mummy there when I was a kid. When I was young it was displayed in a large phony tomb guarded by the statues of two jackals, and I described the fear and awe of ascending along the darkened ramp into the tomb, past recessed funerary objects and a fake Rosetta Stone, to the windows where you'd peak into the well-lit burial chamber, its walls painted in hieroglyphics and the mummy lying still and dark in her ancient coffin. My daughter never tires of this story, and when we got to the Kalamazoo museum, all of those stories made her a little reticent to go over and take a look at the actual mummy, displayed with less pomp behind glass (but today you can get a much better look at her than when I was a kid). Here she is avoiding looking at it:


Eventually she braved up so she could show the mummy to her brother. When they peeked real close, she noticed some white stuff in the mummy's eye socket and said, "Oooh, it looks like a bird pooped in her eye."


I just realized the Kalamazoo mummy has a twitter account. I don't even have a twitter account. What is up with all these mummies and social media? I hope the Kalamazoo mummy signs up for Facebook so she can friend request the one in Ann Arbor. How cool would it be if bored museum interns all over the world made facebook pages for the mummies in their museums. . .ah, eternal life (at least, for those mummies who were lucky enough not to be ground into a powder and served in some warty medieval coot's chamomile tea).

Eventually we hope to travel even further to visit some more lonely, web-savvy rust-belt mummies, (there are a few down in Indiana and Southern Ohio we hope to see one day). But we had a lot of fun visiting all the mummies that were within a few hours' drive, and the visits provoked a lot of interesting questions and discussions on the car trips home. This is what I'm going to miss, when she's in school. We won't be able to hop in the car on any old weekday and drive for an hour or so to see something we can't see at home. But we have all summer, and I have some more adventures planned.



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