Sunday, December 27, 2015

How the Mummymania Exhibition Came About

One of the many exciting things I did this year (and some of last year) was work as a researcher and assistant curator with Dr Andrew Jamieson on the Mummymania exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum of Art which runs from September 29 2015 to April 17 2016.
My involvement was officially under the auspices of the University's Cultural Collections Projects Program, although I already knew Andrew who was my Honours supervisor during 2008 and 2009. Andrew and I started talking about the exhibition in late 2014. Initially we were going to do an exhibition on Egyptomania, which is the topic that I had done my Honours thesis on. I spent several months researching museum collections in Australia and contacting private collectors, including radio broadcaster Phillip Adams and ex-Prime Minister Paul Keating, to try and source objects. In the end, it turned out that there was simply not enough material available in Australia to go with the Egyptomania theme, and it was not possible to borrow from overseas institutions due to budget and time constraints. 
So, we re-thought the theme and decided on Mummymania as we knew that through the Potter's existing collection and Andrew's contacts that we would be able to get enough mummy-themed material to fill out an exhibition. I also sourced a mummified head and hand and accompanying CT scans from the Harry Brooks Allen Museum of Anatomy and Pathology at the University of Melbourne. 
I researched both Egyptian mummies and the reception of the mummy in history and came up with four general themes: the mummy in regard to afterlife beliefs in ancient Egypt; the history of mummy unwrapping in the West which also links to the medical use of, and investigation into, mummies; and the reception of the mummy in popular culture. I then researched individual topics and wrote up text panels on Ancient Egypt, Afterlife Beliefs, Mummification, Mummy Unwrapping, Biomedical Research, the Ethics of Displaying Human Remains, and the Mummy as Hollywood Horror character. These information panels are displayed on the walls of the exhibition gallery. I also wrote the extended labels in the display cases, and the Introduction to the exhibition.
This was a lot of work, so why did I take time out of my already overdue PhD thesis on Tree Worship in the Late Bronze Age Aegean and East Mediterranean to do this and what did I get out of it? Well, years ago when Andrew had supervised my Honours thesis on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and their use and misuse of ancient Egyptian religion, we had vaguely discussed doing an Egyptian-themed exhibition. (Andrew's last Egyptian-themed exhibition was ten years ago). I have had an interest in the display of Egyptian antiquities in museums since my Honours thesis and I just decided (in 2014) to apply to do a project with Andrew through the Cultural Collections Projects Program. At that time Andrew did not have any specific project listed, but he contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in guest curating a show at The Potter, which of course I was. 
The outcomes for me so far include a stack of research material for future use, some popular articles, and radio interviews. I maintain an interest in ancient Egypt and the reception of Egyptian religion and visual style from the Roman period to today. I have a contract for a book chapter on this topic scheduled for publication in 2017, and a journal article in the works. Researching Egyptian mummies therefore functioned as background for these writing projects. I also wrote an article on the exhibition for The Conversation and this was re-printed in the University of Melbourne newspaper, Pursuit. The same day the Conversation article came out I was contacted by ABC radio and did a live interview for ABC Radio's RN Afternoons program, and ABC Radio Hobart's Drive program.
There are certainly more things I could do in regards to this exhibition but right now I simply MUST finish and submit my PhD thesis!!! 
Meanwhile, Mummymania is on until April 17th 2016, so go and see it!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Mummymania in the Media

In conjunction with the opening of the Mummymania exhibition I published an article on the reception of the ancient Egyptian mummy in the West in the online newspaper, The Conversation, which was reprinted in the University of Melbourne's online newspaper, Pursuit. I also did two radio interviews, one with Michael Mackenzie of Radio National's RN Afternoons and the other with Louise Saunders from ABC Hobart's Drive program. So that was fun for me! 

Monday, September 28, 2015

Mummymania Exhibition Open!

Hooray! After months of preparation, the Mummymania exhibition that I worked on as a researcher and curatorial assistant - under curator Dr Andrew Jamieson – is ready to view in the Classics and Archaeology Gallery at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, Parkville.

Mummymania focuses on the role of the ancient Egyptian mummy within the themes of life, death, resurrection and immortality as well as the changing perception of the mummy over time. The mummy has a long history in both ancient and popular culture, from its original role in ancient Egyptian funerary practices to its importance in early scientific investigations into ancient disease and medicine, and its popular reception as a malevolent Hollywood monster-figure. 

The word ‘mummy’ derives from the Persian word mummia meaning bitumen, long considered a medicine in the Near East. Bitumen resembles the dark resinous coating on Egyptian mummies which, along with mummified flesh itself, was prized for medicinal purposes and by the sixteenth century was a highly sought after drug in Western Europe. With the beginning of the serious collection of antiquities in the sixteenth century, whole and partial mummies were included in cabinets of curiosities. Adventurers and diplomats brought back entire mummies along with amulets, scarabs and papyri. After the French and British military campaigns in Egypt (1798–1801) enthusiasm for all things Egyptian became widespread, particularly in the nineteenth century taste, although the mummy is still in demand today by practitioners of magic and the occult.

Public mummy-unrolling spectacles were popular from the sixteenth up to the early twentieth centuries. Egyptologist, Margaret Murray, perhaps better known for her popular books on Witchcraft, even unrolled a mummy in front of a crowd of five hundred people at the University of Manchester in 1908. Beginning in the mid-1970s, non-invasive methods of investigation began to be used in the examination of mummies in order to study ancient disease. Alongside the increased understanding of mummies through scientific methods of investigation, the mummy in popular culture remains a figure of menace as is evident in mummy horror films. 

On trend: Los Angeles Natural History Museum and the Manchester Museum

Friday, July 31, 2015

Bronze Age Fairies from Minoan Crete?

I've got an interview in the current issue of the Fairy Investigation Society Newsletter 2, New Series, July 2015, pages 11‒19, on the question of whether hovering human figures in the glyptic art of Late Bronze Age Crete could be considered fairies. Initially to access the interview you had to be a member of the Fairy Investigation Society but now I've uploaded it on here.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Witches and Witchlore: the Illustrations of Jos A. Smith

Do you remember (and love) Erica Jong's book Witches? Then you will probably want to visit the current exhibition showcasing the work of the book's illustrator, Jos A. Smith, at the Museum of Witchcraft

Jos A. Smith (b. 1936) has had a long and varied career as an artist and illustrator, most notably for Time, Newsweek and The New York Times. He has taught at New York’s prestigious Pratt Institute and has had over twenty solo exhibitions.

This exhibition at the Museum ofWitchcraft and Magic is the latest, showcasing his original artwork for the seminal [or perhaps we should say ovaric?] book, Witches by Erica Jong, first published in 1981. The exhibition is curated by Simon Costin, Director of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic and the Museum of British Folklore. It opened on May 16th 2015 and runs until November 2015. 

Jong's book, Witches, book charts the persecution of witches, through poetry, history and stories and also functions as a grimoire, or handbook for contemporary practitioners. Using pen, ink and watercolour, Jos A. Smith’s illustrations vividly explore all aspects of the various guises of the witch: from seductress to crone; perpetrator to victim. His skilled draughtsmanship reflects witchcraft’s connection to nature, with figures seamlessly blending into other forms, to create an otherworldly, eerie presence on the page. These images also express Jos’s own connection to nature through his study of esoteric religion and meditation, as he states: “I am fascinated by the lore that accrues to natural things...”

Displayed together for the first time at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, this is the inaugural exhibition in a planned new series of temporary shows to be hosted at the museum from Spring 2015. The newly refurbished temporary exhibition space will allow the museum to examine its rich and varied objects in more depth and will also feature exciting collaborations with artists and researchers. People will have something new to see at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic every time they visit, alongside the fascinating permanent collection.

Selected images are available for sale from the Museum's online shop as limited edition prints and high quality art cards. The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic is open until 31st October 2015. Opening hours: Mon-Sat 10.30-6pm, Sunday 11.30-6pm Admisssion £5/£4. [Exhibition text by Desdemona McCannon from Manchester School of Art. Press release edited by Caroline Tully.] 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Mummymania Exhibition

"You will live again, you will live forever. Behold, you are young again forever." 

I am guest curating an exhibition in conjunction with Dr Andrew Jamieson, curator of the Classics and Archaeology Gallery at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne, called Mummymania. It will run from the 6th of October 2015 until April 2016. This exhibition is centred on the Egyptian mummy and its pivotal role in regard to the themes of life, death, the afterlife, eternity and resurrection.  It will have three components: Egyptian concepts of the afterlife; mummies and medicine; and the reception of the mummy. Beginning with the mummy in its original ancient Egyptian context, the exhibition will have a section displaying ancient Egyptian material culture and literature concerning death and the afterlife. Another component of the exhibition will focus on the use of mummies in medicine, beginning in the early twentieth century with the public unwrapping of mummies in England, and the medical testing and analysis of mummy tissue and use of CAT scanning of mummies in order to understand ancient disease. The third aspect of the exhibition will cover the modern reception of the mummy in popular culture, including the use of ancient Egyptian architectural styles in nineteenth and twentieth century cemetery architecture, the use of the mummy in the design of objects such as souvenirs, cosmetic packaging and children’s objects, and the mummy as sinister film star, particularly in regard to the idea of the mummy’s curse in twentieth and twenty-first century horror films. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

My PhD Completion Seminar

I did my PhD Completion Seminar yesterday, 28th of April, as one of the University of Melbourne's Ancient World Seminar Series. The presentation was called The Cultic Life of Trees in Late Bronze Age Crete. Abstract:

Glyptic art is the largest corpus of Aegean Bronze Age representational art and consists of carved seal stones, engraved metal signet rings and the clay impressions (sealings) that the seals are used to produce. A particular group of images engraved on the metal signet rings are thought to depict human and divine figures participating in cult activity. In the absence of translated texts from Minoan Crete, glyptic iconography is the most informative category of evidence relied upon in the interpretation of Minoan religion. This paper uses glyptic images that depict human figures interacting with trees to examine claims first put forth by Sir Arthur Evans (excavator of Knossos on Crete) in 1901 that Minoan religion was characterised by a primitive, aniconic cult of trees, stones and pillars, strongly influenced by the Levant and Egypt. As well as responding to Evans the paper examines the images in light of animism, royal ideology and performance and proposes a new reading in which the Minoan landscape was co-opted in the service of elite ideology and functioned as a politicised active agent in the enactment of power.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Dropping Ecstasy? Minoan Cult and the Tropes of Shamanism

Myself and a colleague, Sam Crooks, have a new article out in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture on Minoan cult and its possible shamanistic characteristics. This is the Abstract: Cult scenes illustrated in miniature on administrative stone seals and metal signet rings from Late Bronze Age Minoan Crete are commonly interpreted as “Epiphany Scenes” and have been called “shamanic.” “Universal shamanism” is a catch-all anthropological term coined to describe certain inferred ritual behaviours across widely dispersed cultures and through time. This study re-examines evidence for Minoan cultic practices in light of key tropes of “universal shamanism,” including consumption of psychoactive drugs, adoption of special body postures, trance, spirit possession, communication with supernatural beings, metamorphosis and the journey to other-worlds. It is argued that while existing characterisations of Minoan cult as “shamanic” are based on partial, reductionist and primitivist assumptions informed by neo-evolutionary comparative ethnologies, shamanism provides a dynamic framework for expanding understandings of Minoan cult.  It is of course understood that while this study is a careful, informed analysis of the evidence, it is but one interpretation among others.