It’s midwinter and London is deep in darkness and freezing fog. The streets are muffled up with silence, there’s frost on the pavements til eleven every morning, and the sun, when it does come out, looks like a silver penny in the mist. These are the best days of Christmas and I am somewhere between the Christmas tree and the sofa, deep in Roger Luckhurst’s book, ‘The Mummy’s Curse’. The book tells a different history to the usual one about the British Museum – so not the Enlightenment story of museums as places of knowledge, learning and overall goodness, but an account of the Gothic myth-making and fantasy that used to hang around the Egyptian galleries at the British Museum, during the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.
It’s a peculiar story, a tangled web of beliefs and a cast of characters that includes: the Curse of Tutankhamun plus an earlier version of it that was attached to a mummy in the Egyptian galleries; a posse of swashbuckling Fleet Street journalists; a British Museum curator called Wallis Budge, who was quarrelsome, opinionated and never quite denied the rumours of the Mummy’s Curse; the Victorian novelist Rider Haggard who attended spirit circles, believed fervently in reincarnation and was a friend of Wallis Budge; and the occult-loving Arthur Conan Doyle, a member of the Ghost Club, who also believed in the power of the Curse. And they are just the main characters; there were plenty more as well.
Needless to say, all this tells us nothing about Ancient Egypt (they didn’t even have the concept of a curse) but rather a lot about late Victorian London, which was awash with beliefs in seances, spiritualism and ghosts. All of which neatly reminds us that although we may intend a museum to tell one story the visitors may ensure that it tells something else.
When I finish the book I close it with a snap and getting off the sofa I head off down to the British Museum in the blue London twilight to see the cursed mummy for myself. There she stands in Gallery 62 – acquisition number 22542 since you ask – hands folded neatly in front of her, looking over my shoulder into the middle distance with an air of innocence personified. The label, I notice, is studiously neutral.
So now it is the end of 2016, a post-truth year if ever there was one, and I find that I am finishing the year slightly less sympathetic to myth-making than when I began it. Myths are everywhere these days but facts are scarcer. On the other hand if museums don’t tell us these kinds of stories then we will understand a little less, not only about Edwardian London but also about the powers that we ascribe to objects.
And besides it is a motto of the Museum of Marco Polo that Everything is Interesting, and so I find myself wondering: were there other Egyptian galleries across the UK that became similarly weighed down by myths and legends? Are there other museums out there that are said to be haunted? What other objects are there to which we ascribe malign powers? And have there been other cultures around which we have been similarly prone to making myths?
In short, does anyone out there know the alternative history of museums?
Roger Luckhurst’s book, ‘The Mummy’s Curse’, is upbeat, thoughtful and written with panache. It deserves a place on your shelves. It was published by Oxford University Press in 2014.