Meeting the Mummy: Springfield Museums Showcase Ancient Egypt

by Kristin O`Connell

 Why does the public flock to museum exhibitions of artifacts from ancient Egypt? The archaeological remains from this oldest of civilizations – virtually all of which come from graves and represent some aspect of the Egyptian cult of the afterlife – exert am extraordinary power on our imaginations. Often amazing us with their beauty, they also touch us on a primal level. Artifacts like miniature tomb figures and painted caskets, along with the mummified remains of human beings and animals from thousands of years in the past, evoke both the mystery of death and the yearning to transcend it.

Visitors to the George Walter Vincent Smith Museum in Springfield are encountering the exoticism of this world in an exhibition that opened in January and will be on view until at least January 2004. Funded in part by a grant from MFH, Ancient Egypt embodies the efforts of a wide array of contributors – high school and college students, artists, and scholars and curators – and combines precious antiquities with vibrant reproductions that display the brilliant color and narrative richness of Egyptian art in its original state. Fascinating in itself, it is the center of a collaborative project that will engage thousands of museumgoers, schoolchildren, music lovers, and public television viewers.

Museumgoers enter the exhibition space through a pair of white obelisks covered with gold hieroglyphs, the work of students at Springfield`s Roger Putnam Vocational Techni-cal High School. Centered in the gallery is a reconstruction of a small temple, its walls covered inside and out with paintings of gods, royal figures, plants and animals, and hieroglyphic inscriptions, all done by University of Massachusetts students working with professional artists. Flanking this room-within-a-room are two areas, one painted from floor to ceiling with murals based on those of a tomb near Thebes. This room and its counterpart on the other side of the gallery hold imposing painted replicas of ancient animal sculptures and handsome Plexiglas cases displaying antiquities.

The centerpiece of the show is a three-part burial ensemble: the mummy of a stonecutter named Padihershef, who lived in Thebes during the 26th dynasty (664-525 B.C.), and the two elaborately painted caskets that held his body. The outer casket belongs to the museum. The inner casket and the mummy itself have been lent by Massachusetts General Hospital, which acquired them as a gift in 1823. Complementing these spectacular pieces are a selection of everyday items and works of art reflecting aspects of Padihershef`s world: a bronze spike of the kind he would have used in his work, jewelry, a finely carved figure of a pharaoh, and mummified small animals, which were sold to pilgrims as temple offerings.

The exhibition also examines the role of Padihershef`s burial ensemble in nineteenth-century American popular culture and science. Soon after its arrival in the United States, the trustees of Massachusetts General Hospital sent it on a commercial tour of East Coast cities, where it attracted large crowds and wide press coverage. Later, it was autopsied by John C. Warren, M.D., the first of several medical examiners of the body. His portrait and an x-ray of the skull are on view near the gallery entrance, where visitors can also pick up a witty account of Victorian "mummy mania" by historian S. J. Wolfe.

The museum`s weekend attendance figures have spiked noticeably since the show opened, and the galleries are really crowded during the week, when they are thronged with schoolchildren, mostly fourth graders. In small groups, they follow docents from one case to another, gazing wide-eyed at Padihershef`s leathery face, eagerly shooting up hands to answer questions, and exchanging grimaces and delighted exclamations of "Eeee-ew!" at the ancient dried fleas on the teeth of a comb. After their tour, they try on belted tunics that approximate Egyptian costume and learn to write their names in hieroglyphs. The schedule for school visits is filling up rapidly; nearly 5,000 students had been booked by late January. A four-day teacher-training institute on ancient Egypt, offered last summer at the museum and featuring scholars from Springfield and Boston, was oversubscribed and received overwhelmingly positive ratings.

This educational programming is only one of the institutional collaborations linking Ancient Egypt with the city and the regional community served by the museum. On May 10, the Springfield Symphony will present a semi-staged performance of Verdi`s Aida, which will be simulcast on public television station WGBY and recorded for future broadcast by radio station WFCR. Information on The Aida Project, encompassing the exhibition, the performance, and other events, can be found at the project website, www.aidaproject.org, along with background information, materials for teachers, and projects for children. All of these activities, linked by technology that would have been inconceivable to Padihershef, are making the ancient Egyptians vivid presences in the twenty-first century. They have, after all, achieved a kind of immorality.

©2003 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Spring 2003