Memento Mummy: Pa-Ib and the Echoes of Egypt Exhibit

April 17, 2013 — Last weekend I unexpectedly ran into an old friend. Like a 4,000-year-old friend. Her name is Pa-Ib. She’s Egyptian. And she’s a mummy. One that I hadn't seen in more than five years.

The first time I came across this girl was in October of 2007 at the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She was the crowning point, both literally and figuratively, of the collection, set in a room on the top floor just past a massive model of a miniature circus.

At the time, there wasn’t a whole lot of information about her. The mummy was believed to be a 2,500-year-old male priest that Barnum used in his show. Since then, it’s been discovered (or at least more widely promulgated) that the mummy is a female, probably a commoner, that her name isn’t Pa-Ib (that’s the masculine name on the sarcophagus, which doesn’t belong to the body), and that her age is probably closer to 4,000 years. It’s also believed that she was never part of Barnum’s show, but was picked up by his wife after his death in 1891 and donated to the museum.

Also probable, I was extremely bad at researching back then.

But I’ve thought about Pa-Ib a few times since that Fall. What she’s up to, how she’s doing, if she ever realized her dream of visiting Graceland. That’s because in June of 2010, Bridgeport was hit by a tornado that wrecked a lot of the museum. They’ve been slowly putting it all back together, but it’ll still be a good while before it re-opens.

So where’s the mummy? Destroyed? Packed in cotton in a warehouse crate somewhere? Whisked away to Oz?

On Saturday, I visited the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Connecticut. I hadn’t done much prep for the site and just expected to see dinosaur bones, rocks, and taxidermy. And they had that, certainly.

But then we walked right into Egypt.

Turns out, the very day of our visit, the museum had opened a new, temporary exhibit called “Echoes of Egypt: Conjuring the Land of the Pharaohs.”

It’s a fantastic idea. A few of the objects were Egyptian, like a couple of animal mummies and a stone map of the cosmos, but the majority were antique art and artifacts inspired by Egypt over the millennia, from those cultures that overlapped with the time of the Pharaohs to the very edge of modern times.

So basically ancient and antique pieces inspired by more ancient ones.

There were paintings, books, furniture, sculpture, even architecture. There were beautiful European artworks from the 18th and 19th centuries. Incantation bowls and magic amulets from Babylon. Old translations of Egyptian hieroglyphics. A poster from Universal Studios' The Mummy. And the entrance to the exhibit was a replica of the Egyptian Revival gate that currently guards the entrance to New Haven’s 170-year-old New Haven’s Grove Street Cemetery. It is carved with the phrase, “The Dead Shall Be Raised.”

But the centerpiece of the exhibit was an actual Egyptian mummy. And it looked very familiar. It was arranged in a glass-enclosed diorama, on a table. Two men stood over it, while a woman and child looked on. We scoured the informational placards for a few seconds before finding the four letters and a hyphen that we were looking for: Pa-Ib.

To fit the theme of the exhibit, they were displaying this authentic Egyptian artifact in the context of a 19th century “unwrapping party.” In the 1800s, when Egyptian mummies were more like fashionable imports than hallowed historical treasures, people would get together, throw a party, and unwrap a mummy to see what it looked like and if anything mementos were hidden in the linen cloths. Sometimes the parties were thrown for scientific inquiry. Mostly it was for entertainment.

And if I ever throw a Halloween party, that’s going to be the theme.

But Pa-Ib was no mere prop in this display. She lived that era. She’s a naked mummy, her grave clothes being long ago unwound as a result of one of these parties. The Peabody says it happened 1894. It also says that’s when Mrs. Barnum donated it to the Barnum museum. On the other side, I’ve seen two different dates for Mrs. Barnum’s donation, 1892 and 1896.

So there seems to be some confusion as to whether Pa-Ib (which I will always call her) was unwrapped at a party that Mrs. Barnum threw or if she was unwrapped after being donated to the museum. Or sometime before both. But I’d like to pretend that Mrs. Barnum threw the party as a way to deal with her husband’s death. Grieving over a lost one? Unwrap somebody else’s.

And if I ever have a funeral, I hope that’ll be the theme.

Anyway, Pa-Ib’s awesome, and the entire Peabody Museum exhibit is brilliant. You can peruse it online here. The only bad thing about it is that it only runs through January 4, 2014.

It should also be noted that the Peabody Museum has a small, but permanent Egyptian artifact exhibit on its third floor.

And that running into a surprise mummy will really change your mood for the day.

If you go see Pa-Ib, tell her I sent you. And if she responds, then run right for the magic amulets. They’re labeled, “In case of resurrection, break glass.”