When you are a child and you live in Turin, you will not be able to skip at least one visit to the worldwide famous Egyptian Museum: your teacher will start talking about this mysterious and fascinating civilization ruled by powerful, demigod Pharaohs and you will inevitably fall in love with them or at least you will long to find out more about them. Indeed, it is quite surprising that the second largest Egyptian museum of the world is in a town nestled in the Alps, thousands of miles away from where this civilization was born, and Turin is extremely proud and honoured about that. But this is another story.
When I visited the Egyptian Museum for the first time, in the early 1990s, the museum still had a quite old-fashioned exhibition – very far away from the spectacular lightening of the Sarcophaguses Gallery and the interactive exhibitions that now enrich your experience.
Nevertheless, I was so curious and eager to know more about Ancient Egypt that I found all the reconstructions of the tombs and temples extremely interesting, I was intrigued by the statues of the gods and by the everyday objects. But what really excited me were the stories of the everyday people. And it was then that I met those who were going to become my favourite characters. In the gallery dedicated to the cult of the dead, were the mummies of three young women who lived during the 25th Dynasty, in the VII century B.C. The hieroglyphic inscriptions on the sarcophagus inform us that they were three sisters: Tapeni (Little Mouse), Tama (Cat) and Neferrenepet (Good Year). Their father was a minister, chief of the artisans of the Temple of Amon. All three sisters have anthropomorphic sarcophaguses and painted scenes at the feet level showing Apis, the bull, transporting the soul towards the tomb, while some baboons adore the Sun. These three mummies underwent a CAT, which highlighted that all three women died only a few days apart, probably because of a virus or food poisoning. These were the basic information the guide was giving to my class about Tapeni, Tama and Neferrenepet, but these words were slowly fading as I started looking at one of the mummies.
Her little, brown face was nearly completely wrapped with bandages and I could only see her closed eyes and her thin black hair. This vision reminded me of myself sleeping in my bed, and this is probably how my mum sees me every morning, curled up in the blanket. Their strange names made me even more interested and I started daydreaming about their lives: I could see them playing, chatting and running along the Nile or praying their Gods at home. I started empathizing with them and suddenly I felt really sorry about the fact that now they were there, in a glass shrine, under the eyes of thousands of intrusive visitors. I started wondering if they would have been happy knowing that so many people were watching them now, somehow disturbing their rest – especially recalling all the legends about the terrible revenge of the Pharaohs against those who dared entering their tombs! And I started wondering if I would be happy knowing that some visitors could come all the time and take pictures of my mummy, without any interest of who I am, but just because they could boast a visit to the museum. I think I probably wouldn’t be so satisfied after all and I think the museum should develop a new exhibition policy to respect the sensitivity of the different visitors, but also to help visitors in developing the awareness of ethical questions concerning the exhibition of dead people.
So now, when I go to the Egyptian Museum I always pay a visit to Tapeni, Tama and Neferrenepet to make sure they are fine and to let them know that I remember them as the first Egyptian girls I met, but I do it from far – I just hope they can feel my presence and friendship.
Elena is a PhD student from Italy conducting her research at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester.