London is awash with candlelit museum tours and shows on Terror and Wonder (as sure a sign of autumn as christmas decorations in Selfridges). And pretty much simultaneously Roger Luckhurst’s book on 19th century Egyptomania has fallen into my hands, from which I discover that films like ‘The Mummy’ are not only the products of 1990’s Hollywood but also heirs to a long Victorian and Edwardian obsession with Pharaohs and curses and the Return of the Dead.
So if at this moment you are picturing gas lamps and alleyways and full moons shining on three-masted sailing ships weighing anchor for the Colonies, and Victorian gentlemen in long, dark overcoats gathering in country houses to dabble in seances and spiritualism and the hunting of ghosts, then you are roughly in the right place.
But the story is more complicated and more interesting than this. It seems that between the beginning and end of the 19th century we changed our view of Egypt from a place of sublimity to a place of curses. Luckhurst also suggests that Victorian and Edwardian London was not an homogenous space but was riddled with pockets of odd exotic-ness.
And so around the British Museum, that monument to Enlightenment thinking, were small, private collections of Egyptian artefacts. There was the Soane Museum that hosted soires by candlelight around Seti’s alabaster tomb. There was the Royal College of Surgeons, which contained several mummies as well as many medical monstrosities. There was the Wellcome Collection with its magical Egyptian papyri, and Lady Meux’s private collection of Egyptian antiquities (she had a cursed mummy), and John Lee’s collection in Hartwell House, and the Cuming collection in Southwark, and Frederick Horniman’s collection down near Crystal Palace, where as late as 1897 you could still watch a public mummy unwrapping.
All these collections had mummies in them. Each felt like a throwback to the old Cabinets of Curiosities, those symbols of private wealth and power but also of magical thinking.
Nor was the British Museum a place of pure Enlightenment and nothing else. Wallis Budge, the British Museum curator for Egyptology, a quarrelsome, difficult man, denied the wild rumours concerning mummy curses, but was himself a member of the Ghost Club, a late Victorian Club for researching spiritualism, attending seances and telling ghost stories. (The first rule of the Ghost Club was that you never talked about the Ghost Club.) One of the Horniman curators was a self-proclaimed magician.
It seems that side by side with the coming of the British Museum and its Enlightenment attitudes there grew up a wistful, counter-Enlightenment that longed to retain wonder and weirdness and out of which there grew a maelstrom of myths and rumours that even the British Museum could not control.
So now I am standing in the British Museum, looking at the mummies (and studiously avoiding discovering which of them is said to be cursed – just in case – because I am thinking, ‘I have way too much work in the office to have time to get cursed right now’) whilst the following questions come into my mind –
Why do we believe that the meaning of an object is always the same as the intention of the person who first made it? What about its long after-history that may have continued for thousands of years? The ghostly stories that attach to Egyptian mummies tell us absolutely nothing about Pharaonic Egypt but do tell us oodles about 19th century London. And why do we always make a cut across time and use objects to explain that moment? Why don’t we go the other way, following the thread of the long, strange history of an object through time?
In all this, the fact that mummy curses have no scientific truth is neither here nor there; time turns all things into posh history in the end, even mummy curses.
And here’s another question. There is something about the Victorian period that powerfully attracts writers and film-makers, each of whom adds a layer of myth-making to the period. Having read Luckhurst’s book I am forever going to look at mummies through a cloud of Pharaonic Egypt blended with dark 19th century London. But why do we want to myth-make about the Victorians in particular? And will we ever be able to write with mint-fresh truthfulness about a period so laden with urban myths and dreams?
Roger Luckhurst’s book is ‘The Mummy’s Curse: the True History of a Dark Fantasy’.