My first encounter with an ancient Egyptian mummy was in the towering civic jewel of my hometown of Glasgow: the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. What I remember most about my early visits to Kelvingrove is the smell – the peculiar smell of what I thought was ‘antiquity’ – strange, exotic, slightly musty – but which was probably polish. It still has it.
There was only one ‘proper’ mummy. I did not recognise a collection of (original?) bones (placed in a remarkably small coffin with partially closed lid) as a mummy. Skeletons are too prosaic, not as exciting as the ‘mummiform’ – with its scintillating suggestion of a human being beneath a bandaged surface. My interest had initially sprung from a combination of watching the popular 1980s cartoon Thundercats (with a bandage-swathed baddie, Mumm-Ra, who lived in an onyx pyramid) and looking through a copy of Howard Carter’s The Tomb of Tutankhamun, with a plate of the linen-shrouded form of the king’s second coffin. I was fascinated about what was hidden beneath, unrevealed. However, I remember a sense of disappointment when encountering the Kelvingrove mummy (who a friend of a friend later told me was referred to as ‘Mary’ by staff); it was blackened from the application of resins, not the gleaming white of the dastardly Mumm-Ra. It didn’t match my expectations, but it was intriguing nonetheless.
Now, as the curator of a significant collection of Egyptian mummies, I witness the excitement, apprehension, and curiosity of visitors from a different perspective. For those who visit the mummies held in storage, it is still the smell that gets them first – the same sort of strange, exotic, musty – but not necessarily unpleasant – fragrance. I cannot easily say what my attitude to the mummies is now. As a child, my excitement was never dimmed by repeated visits; now, I suspect, we adults can over-intellectualise that encounter.
Dr Campbell Price is Curator of Egypt and Sudan at the Manchester Museum, University of Manchester - one of the UK's most significant Egyptology collections. You can find his blog here: https://egyptmanchester.wordpress.com/