A man is walking through the Egyptian galleries of the Musée du Louvre in Paris. It is midnight and the museum is closed. But he is not here to play by the museum’s rules. No, he is here to be reunited with a stolen Egyptian mummy.
The man we are observing is a gallery attendant at the Musée du Louvre. During the day, he sits in a corner of the museum, briefly answering visitor queries, mostly observing the Egyptian mummies and other Egyptian material culture on display in this museum that hosts the largest collection of Egyptian artefacts outside of Egypt.
On this day, the gallery attendant met a very enthusiastic student who had come to study a papyrus, after a long journey from England. The gallery attendant also made the acquaintance of museum visitors who were rather unpleasant to him. He even heard one of them make a rather offensive comment. The visitor had whispered, not quietly enough evidently, that ‘one could almost believe that by the continual contemplation of mummies the chap has become half a mummy himself’. The chap in question was the gallery attendant.
But was the visitor entirely dishonest with this comment?
On this very day, the student who had traveled from England, Mr. John Vansittard Smith, becomes involved ‘in a most strange and noteworthy adventure’: he falls asleep in the museum. Not unlike many children’s dreams to have a sleepover at a museum, Vansittard wakes up in the middle of the night in the Egyptian galleries. At first, he is rather embarrassed, then concerned that he might be in trouble. He considers, quite astounded, that he is ‘alone with the dead men of a dead civilisation’. Soon enough, however, an entirely different feeling overtakes him: fear. He hears footsteps approaching and thinks immediately that it might be a thief. Someone is indeed coming to take something away.
Or, rather, to take someone away.
An Egyptian mummy.
But the man is no thief: he is the museum attendant. He walks towards the mummy case, opens it with his staff key, takes the body out and starts to remove the wrappings, revealing a beautifully preserved ancient Egyptian woman. He then moves towards another display case, where he grabs an ancient Egyptian ring. And then, of course, he finds the student…
…But this is not a genuine story about a gallery attendant working at the Musée du Louvre and a student who falls asleep. It is the beginning of a piece of fiction called ‘The ring of Thot’, by writer Arthur Conan Doyle, first published in January 1890.[i] Conan Doyle’s gallery attendant is not your usual gallery attendant but an ancient Egyptian man who has made himself immortal through alchemy – an ancient Egyptian man who speaks fluent French and English! Now he is on a quest to find his long-dead love, a quest that has taken him on a journey through time and space. The story is a reflection upon the desire to live forever and the pain of losing people along the way. But it is also the story of a female mummy and a valuable artefact, both stolen and displaced to Paris by a real-life French archaeologist, Auguste Mariette.
This ancient Egyptian man’s best chance to approach the Egyptian mummy in its Parisian home? To take on a job as a gallery attendant at the Musée du Louvre...
I chose to share this story because I, too, took a job as a gallery attendant at the Musée du Louvre, where I spent many hours observing the only Egyptian mummy on display at the time, named Pacheri. I was also, on numerous occasions, a student visiting the Musée du Louvre for research purposes. I grew up in the suburbs of Paris where, at 13, I decided I wanted to become an Egyptologist, and my attention turned to the closest collection of Egyptian material culture: the colossal Musée du Louvre and its two floors of ancient Egyptian artefacts, and one very impressive body, an Egyptian mummy. At 19, after completing a year of art history at La Sorbonne, I finally got my dream job: I became a summer gallery attendant at the Musée du Louvre. Every day I would arrive at the museum at 8am and be in the galleries half an hour later, before the museum opened to the public. I wanted to take in the feeling of walking in the vast and gigantism of this museum, without anyone around. Every morning, I would find out where the museum had allocated me that day; a new room every single day. I not so secretly wished to be allocated to the Egyptian galleries, to wander all day the rooms I was still discovering, and to learn all I could from the other gallery attendants, especially the senior ones. They were a living memory of the museum. It is while I worked as a gallery attendant for a second year in a row that I asked a member of staff, who was particularly knowledgeable about the history of the Egyptian galleries, about the Egyptian mummies at the Louvre, and especially why the museum had so few. I had just spent a year in London where the British Museum had a profusion of Egyptian bodies on display, and I was curious about the difference in attitudes of these two museums.
That is when she told me about the missing mummies.
An uncongruous, but true, story that started me on a decade-long journey exploring the history of Egyptian mummies in museums in France and Britain, and asking questions about public engagement with ancient Egyptian mummified bodies. For the full story, I invite you to read MUMMIFIED, out June 7.
This little story was inspired by my friend and colleague John J. Johnston who has written the foreword of MUMMIFIED, and has edited Unearthed which first introduced me to this short story. Like the book, this story is dedicated to our friend Helen, who gave me a chance of a lifetime a decade ago, and is deeply missed. Helen took this picture of me at the Petrie Museum exactly a decade ago.
Thank you for being a part of Mummy Stories in its sixth year - Angela Stienne
[i] Conan Doyle, The Ring of Thoth (1890), edited in John J. Johnston and Jared Shurin (eds), Unearthed (London: Jurassic London, 2013), pp.79-96.