Meet our 2,500-year-old mummy!

Ipswich Museum, proud to celebrate the past, is also very much looking to the future. Steven Russell visits its new Egyptian gallery and hears about exciting dreams

“We’re hoping that in the next couple of years we’re going to put in a Heritage Lottery Fund bid to completely redevelop the museum – all of it; the entire footprint – which would be really exciting,” says Caroline McDonald, curator of archaeology. “To get people engaged with that idea, you have to say ‘This is what we can achieve.’ So with Egypt, what we are saying is ‘This is what we want the entire museum to look like in future. As the museum changes over the years, come along with us on that journey. Have input.’

“The only reason we’ve survived since 1853 is that we’ve changed with the times. And now it’s time for change again. So we’re looking ahead.”

Thoughts are at a very, very early stage, “but one idea is to have a glass roof between the main building and one of its wings, and create a glass atrium, like the British Museum and the Fitzwilliam Museum, and have a very light and airy space.”

The curator recognises the pressure on the public purse during these turbulent times, “but it’s at that point that people shouldn’t give up on their heritage. It’s very easy to say ‘Oh, we’ll save money by cutting heritage, culture and the arts’, but people always regret it when the good times roll back.

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“Society is about its healthcare and its social responsibility, but art and culture plays a huge part. It’s about where you live and pride in where you live, and who you are. If you forget that when times are tough... As Ipswich faces tough times, it has to cling on to its sense of identity. And we do that here at the museum.”

Enough of the future – back thousands of years to Egypt...

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The new gallery has taken space from the Roman collection – revenge, in a way, since Roman annexation effectively brought an end to the Ancient Egyptian civilisation!

The project, from conception to reality, has taken a double-quick 16 months or so – compared to the normal gallery-creation time of two to three years. There’s been a �50,000 grant from The Wolfson Foundation charity. Money has also come from The Friends of the Ipswich Museums, and from the Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service budget.

It’s aimed at 7-11 year olds, since Egypt is a major school topic, but can be enjoyed by anyone. The cases are all low down, and interactive activities such as puzzles are at helpful heights for children and wheelchair users.

There will be some clothes to dress up in (and replica Egyptian mirrors in which to admire the end result!) and the chance to handle an Egyptian statue. The smell of lotus flowers will hang in the air. The flower was a symbol of rebirth and its oil commonly used in temple incense.

About 40% of the museum’s collection of 600 Egyptian artefacts will be on show.

“When you go to a lot of displays, you get the impression the Egyptians were obsessed with death,” says Caroline. “And they weren’t obsessed with death! We wanted to show they were obsessed with living – so it’s about their daily life and then the afterlife: living and then more living.”

Hence the gallery takes the theme of a journey. Visitors are introduced to Egypt and then “go down the Nile”, accompanied by the sounds of the river pivotal to Egyptian life.

“As you turn the corner into the second gallery it’s about daily life – very busy, very bright. And we ask the very obvious questions: What did they eat? Did they go to school? Eventually, you come into the tomb gallery, which is where we explore the afterlife. What is it? How do you live when you get there?”

Star of the show is Lady Thathor, a real person mummified about 2,500 years ago who lived in Thebes – modern-day Luxor.

“We had her CAT-scanned recently.” Internal images will be playing on a screen, showing the entire skeleton right down to her individual toes. There‘s a 3D image of the skull.

“We know she died in her mid-20s, of natural causes. Average life expectancy was only about 30. Because of the clues left behind – objects in tombs and how people were treated after they died – we know she had a lot of attention lavished on her, so she was probably fairly wealthy.

“And we know from Egyptian writings what sort of a life she would have had and how she would have run her household. So we’ve taken those clues and constructed a little story for her – to add some humanity.” Visitors can use an audio post to hear her tell her story.

The Ancient Egyptians thought the dead lived forever among the stars, so some tomb ceilings were painted like the night sky. At Ipswich Museum, the tomb area achieves the same effect with neat fibre-optic lights.

Lady Thathor has been an adopted Essex girl in modern times. Her mummy was a souvenir brought back to England by a man visiting Egypt donkey’s years ago as part of a grand tour. She was later donated to the museum in Colchester.

“They don’t have an Egypt collection, so she was a bit of an oddity, and she’ll be much more at home here,” says Caroline, who adds that 21st Century museum staff are very respectful of human remains.

“In Victorian days they had events where they’d unwrap mummies in public. People would pay to watch. We do forgive them, but we don’t copy them.”

There’s also a 2,000-year-old mummy mask from the Roman period. It’s made of cartonnage, which is like papier-mache but using linen and plaster of paris that’s then covered in gold leaf.

“It shows the face of a man whose name we know, because it’s written on the mask: Titus Flavius Demetrios. He was living in Egypt but was of Greek descent – descended from the soldiers Alexander the Great had put into Egypt. What we don’t know is how he became a Roman citizen. Again, he ‘talks’ to you, and tries to get you to imagine why he might have become a Roman citizen.”

Titus’s mask was part of a Victorian excavation of a cemetery in Central Egypt, thought to be a family plot. The British Museum, which has lots, is lending one to Ipswich to sit alongside Titus’s. It’s of Syros, another young man who lived in the Roman period.

These faces from the past will be displayed in mirrored cases, so visitors can see every detail – including Titus’s name in Greek.

Caroline has high hopes for the new-look area.

“I hope people will be excited about the past and I hope they will try to understand that objects represent people; that what you’re not looking at in a case is a still, dead object. What you’re looking at is people’s lives, and these people had the same concerns as we do: what they ate; how they brought up their children; how they spent their free time. We want them to walk away feeling they’ve ‘met’ someone from Ancient Egypt.”

There is, she recognises, a general fascination with Ancient Egypt – particularly mummies and the supernatural – that can be tapped into. Hollywood is largely responsible for this, she feels.

“The newsreels about Howard Carter” – the archaeologist at the centre of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 – “went around the world. Then there was ‘The curse of Tutankhamun’, and the B�la Lugosi (horror) films... and the (1964 movie) The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb... and then all the Hammer horror films. They’ve taken something very ordinary and completely mystified it, and made it seem scary and supernatural. It feeds people’s imagination and curiosity.”

Caroline is also pleased to be doing right by Lady Thathor. “To survive in the afterlife, one of the very important things was that people had to remember your name. I like to think that in our own little way, by remembering Lady Thathor and having her name in the gallery, talking about her, that somehow we are helping her still ‘live’ in the afterlife. That makes me feel warm inside!”

IPSWICH Museum has an important collection of Ancient Egyptian artefacts – thanks largely to being in the right place at the right time. The museum has been in existence since the 1850s – and on its present site since 1881 – so was ideally poised when “Mummy Mania” started at the end of the 19th Century and culminated in 1922 with Howard Carter and the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun.

In the mid 1880s archaeologist William Flinders Petrie began excavations in Egypt. “What sets him apart is that he recorded everything, he photographed everything,” says Caroline McDonald. “Prior to that, people were just going and looting tombs for stuff to sell. He was also very concerned with the everyday things people used – not just the treasure.”

Flinders Petrie’s work was supported by the Egypt Exploration Fund. Museums could subscribe, and for perhaps �10 a year would receive a box of artefacts at the end of the digging season.

“We wouldn’t do it now, but it was a way they could be funded. We subscribed and got these things back from Petrie’s excavations, so we actually have a very important collection of Egyptology and it was all properly re-corded.”

Wealthy folk would also go off on “grant tour” holidays. They would often buy ancient artefacts as souvenirs and later donate them to museums.

Bread and beer was the main food and drink for Ancient Egyptians

• People ate with their fingers; knives and forks hadn’t been invented

• Dates, figs, melons and grapes might also be on the menu

• The working week was nine days long, with one day off

• Pyramids were not built by slaves but by farmers conscripted to government building works during the Nile flood season, when they could not work on the land

Footprints in the sand

5,400 years ago: First use of hieroglyph writing

5,000 years ago: Egypt ruled by one person for first time

About 4,500 years ago: Great pyramid built at Giza

1336 BC: A boy, Tutankhamen, becomes king

332 BC: Alexander the Great conquers Egypt

30 BC: Rome conquers Egypt

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