Whitby Museum holds a fascinating collection of archaeological, anthropological, historical and natural specimens. The town’s port means that the museum has objects from all over the world, from as far away as New Zealand. The collection is not shy of human remains and the highlight of the museum is definitely the Hand of Glory, a pickled or mummified hand of a hangman which was thought to aid in burglary.
The museum once possessed a very different mummy, believed to be that of a young Egyptian woman. However, the significance of the mummy rests not on its Egyptian history but its 19th/20th century one: often considered the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s resurrected Egyptian mummy in ‘The Jewel of the Seven Stars’. Wandering around the museum today it is easy to see how, surrounded by ethnographic artefacts, desiccated body parts, and for a time even shrunken heads, the Egyptian mummy could have inspired the gothic horror. In the same way he saw Whitby Abbey as a foreboding castle, did Stoker see the town’s mummy, not as a collectible object but a source of occult terror? While we can never be sure if the mummy was the inspiration behind the book, the setting of the museum and some of its more macabre artefacts could easily have influenced such a novel, especially in candle light. Perhaps the scent of the candle-wax contributed to the distinct ‘mummy smell’ described in The Jewel of the Seven Stars?
Never unwrapped, the mummy was later sold to the Hull Museum and discovered to be not female, but that of a male priest. Although not verified, Whitby museum’s website describes a rumour that the mummy travelled from Whitby to Hull in the passenger seat of a car. That definitely could have inspired a resurrection tale!
Chloe Ward is an archaeologist and mphil/PhD candidate at UCL's Institute of Archaeology looking at the use of archives in current archaeological research. She has extensive fieldwork experience in both the UK and across the world including Egypt and is a longtime volunteer of the Petrie Museum at UCL.