Monthly Archives: October 2015
As far as crowd-pleasers go, it’s hard to beat mummies. When Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs opened at the Melbourne Museum in 2011, it broke all previous records for touring exhibitions in Australia, attracting more than 800,000 visitors over its run and 10,192 visitors on a single day in May.
Last month, a new exhibition titled Mummymania opened at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne. Featuring traditional Egyptian funerary objects such as amulets, figurines, offering vessels, bandages, and a decorated coffin, the exhibition also features actual mummified human remains.
As such, it offers an opportunity to reconsider how museum spaces exhibit and facilitate respectful engagement with the dead. It also offers a chance to reflect on the more recent history of the mummy – its role in scientific investigations into ancient disease and medicine, and its place in popular culture.
A recent history of the mummy
Since the 1970s, indigenous groups have rightfully claimed the return of ancestral human remains held in museum collections. Ancient Egyptian mummies have no living claimants, however, and are part of a long tradition of unearthing and display that forms part of the history of archaeology and the ongoing public fascination with ancient Egypt.
Interest in Egyptian mummies by Europeans can be traced back to the 5th century BC and the Greek historian Herodotus who provided one of the first accounts of the mummification process.
Throughout the following centuries mummies were plundered for jewellery and amulets; ground up and used as medicines; and even as a pigment base for paint.
The dark resinous coating applied to mummies as part of the embalming process was mistakenly believed to be bitumen (Persian “mummia”) which was used as a medicine in Greece and the Near East.
Egyptian mummies were harvested for the dried resin as well as for their dried flesh. By the 16th century mummy had become a highly-prized drug exported to Western Europe where it was ground up, applied to wounds, and swallowed.
As well as being used as medicine, by the 18th century Egyptian mummies had become the focus of the medical community as scientific specimens. Mummies were dissected by doctors at private homes in front of audiences of medical practitioners and curious spectators.
Fragments of the mummy’s flesh, bandages, and accompanying artefacts were passed among the audience to be touched, smelt and tasted.
During the 19th century mummy unwrapping events moved to more professional locations such as medical and military museums, hospital operating theatres, laboratories, pharmacies, and respected scientific organisations such as the Royal Institution.
These popular, spectacular events attracted a paying audience made up of academics and the interested public. Melbourne had its own mummy unwrapping in 1893 when a female mummy was unwrapped in the concert hall in the Royal Exhibition Building in front of a crowd of 700 people, mostly women.
Popular culture & the mummy
Egyptian mummies were also used in art; pulverised mummies formed the basis of Caput Mortuum, also known as Mummy Brown, a rich brown pigment used in paintings from the 16th up until the 20th century. Mummy Brown featured in paintings by artists such as Eugène Delacroix and Edward Burne-Jones among others.
When Burne-Jones discovered that the pigment really did contain ground up mummy he ceremoniously buried his tube of paint in the garden. Despite its widespread use, Mummy Brown eventually fell out of favour through a combination of distaste regarding its origins and technical problems such as its tendency to crack.
The mummy even featured in 19th-century fiction where it was portrayed as a gentle, even romantic character up until the publication in 1892 of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story Lot No. 249.
In this story a mummy is brought back to life by an Oxford college student through the use of ancient Egyptian magic and sent to attack all the people the student has a grudge against.
The story marked a turning point in the representation of the mummy who from that time on would be depicted as a frightening reanimated corpse. By the 20th century ancient Egyptian mummies were definite villains, sinister, predatory figures featuring in pulp magazines dedicated to fantasy, science fiction, mystery and the occult, as well as in film.
Universal Studio’s The Mummy (1932) starring Boris Karloff, is the classic mummy horror movie. In this film Imhotep, an Egyptian priest who had been buried alive for attempting to resurrect his beloved princess, is accidentally revived when an archaeologist reads from the life-giving Scroll of Thoth. The mummy then stalks a beautiful young woman he believes is his lost love reincarnated.
Archaeologists excavating an Egyptian tomb are terrorised by a mummy in The Mummy’s Hand (1940), and in a sequel, The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), the mummy reappears at the archaeologists’ home in New England. More recently Universal made The Mummy (1999), followed by The Mummy Returns (2001), both of which are based on the original premise of the 1932 movie.
But, of course, mummies are not fictional movie creations. They’re real, and still very much with us, as exhibitions such as the current one remind us.
Mummymania, at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, runs until April 17, 2016. Details here.
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) is one of the world’s most famous astronomers. He defended Copernicus’s sun-centred universe and discovered that planets move in ellipses. A planet, NASA mission and planet-hunting spacecraft are named after him.
Yet in recent years Kepler and his family have appeared as dubious, even murderous people. In 2004 for example, a team of American journalists alleged that Kepler systematically poisoned the man he succeeded at the court of Rudolf II in Prague: Tycho Brahe. He may well be the scientist with the worst reputation.
But the majority of slurs concern the astronomer’s mother, Katharina. Arthur Koestler’s famous history of astronomy, The Sleepwalkers, where Katharina features as a “hideous little woman” whose evil tongue and “suspect background” predestined her as victim of the witchcraze.
Then there’s John Banville’s prize-winning historical novel Kepler, which vividly portrays Katharina as a crude old woman who makes a dangerous business of healing by boiling potions in a black pot. She meets with old hags in a kitchen infested with cat smells. Outside in her garden lies a dead rat. Kepler desperately tries to hide his mother’s magical arts from his wife as they visit and Katharina searches for a bag filled with bat-wings. This horrendous mother is scary, disgusting, and probably a witch.
There is something behind these hints: the portrayals stem to the astonishing fact that 400 years ago, when her son was at the very height of his scientific career, Katharina Kepler was accused of witchcraft. It is because of this that it has become commonplace in Anglo-American writing to depict Kepler’s mother as a difficult, bizarre and half-crazed old crone.
But what is the real story? Kepler certainly must rank as one of the most influential scientists to come from a disadvantaged background. Whereas Galileo’s father was a noted scholar of music, Kepler’s was a soldier who kept running away from the family. His parents argued and the only brother close to him in age suffered from epilepsy. This made it difficult for the brother to attend school or learn a trade.
Johannes Kepler, by contrast, soon emerged as an extremely talented boy. He was picked up by one of the most advanced Lutheran scholarship systems in Germany at the time and lived in boarding schools. He once fought against a boy who insulted his father, and was in his teens when the father disappeared for good.
Kepler wrote bleak little characterisations of his parents and paternal family around the time that he finished university. He also wrote about himself as a flawed young man, obsessively interested in fame, worried about money, unable to communicate his ideas in a straightforward way. These pieces of writing have principally served as evidence who want to depict Kepler and his family as horrendous, even murderous.
Yet these writings need to be put into context. Kepler wrote them very early in his life, and he did so in order to analyse his horoscopes. The whole convention of astrology was to point to character problems, rather than to laud lovely people. Kepler was a deeply Christian man, and one of his most impressive characteristics is how optimistic he soon began to feel about the world he lived in, against his odds and despite looming war. He built his own family and deeply cared about his wife and children. Kepler was confident about the importance of his discoveries and productive, even though he was never offered a university position.
Then came the accusation against his mother. The proceedings which led to a criminal trial lasted six years. The Imperial mathematician formally took over his mother’s legal defence. No other public intellectual figure would have ever involved themselves in a similar role, but Kepler put his whole existence on hold, stored up his books, papers and instruments in boxes, moved his family to southern Germany and spent nearly a year trying to get his mother out of prison.
Local records for the small town in which Katharina Kepler lived are abundant. There is no evidence that she was brought up by an aunt who was burnt for witchcraft – this was one of the charges which her enemies invented. There is no evidence either that she made a living from healing – she simply mixed herbal drinks for herself and sometimes offered her help to others, like anyone else. A woman in her late 70s, Katharina Kepler withstood a trial and final imprisonment, during which she was chained to the floor for more than a year.
Kepler’s defence was a rhetorical masterpiece. He was able to dismantle the inconsistencies in the prosecution case, and show that the “magical” illnesses for which they blamed his mother could be explained using medical knowledge and common sense. In the autumn of 1621, Katharina was finally set free.
Johannes Kepler and his mother lived through one of the most epic tragedies in the age of the witch-craze. It’s high time to re-evaluate what kind of man Kepler was: he does not deserve to be the scientist with the worst reputation. And nor does his mother deserve to be portrayed as a witch.
The famous photo of Lee Harvey Oswald holding the rifle he would later use to kill JFK was recently confirmed by forensic research to be authentic. At the time of his arrest, Oswald told the Dallas police that it was a fake, part of an effort to frame him. Since then, people all over the world have produced a small mountain of “evidence” to support this thesis.
This new authentication should put these conspiracy theories to rest. In reality, it will change nothing. Those who want to believe will in all likelihood cling to their theory with the certainty of religious faith. Their usual response to new facts is either to claim they’re false, question the motives of those behind them, or try to fit them into their own worldview.
The truth is not enough
Police, academics, and other experts have been dissecting the JFK conspiracy arguments for years without making much of a dent in their armies of loyal adherents. Tenuous facts and half-truths are pieced together, and leaps in logic are made every time a new piece of evidence emerges that doesn’t fit the conspiracy narrative.
Even today, many of the same old arguments are trotted out in defence of the idea that it was a vast and sinister conspiracy: that a single shooter could not have made the kill; that Oswald was a bad shot; that Oswald couldn’t have fired so many shots in that time. The list goes on, and on.
This irrationality follows a familiar pattern. A few years ago, Barack Obama released his long-form birth certificate in response to accusations that he had been born in Kenya.
But many of those involved in the so-called Birther movement immediately declared it a fake. They’d been claiming for the best part of two years that Obama had resisted making his birth certificate public because he had something to hide. When it was produced, they promptly decided that its existence was confirmation that they were right all along.
No place for reason
This is why the conspiracy theorists who believe that Oswald was set up, and that JFK was in fact murdered by some combination of the mob, the Cubans, the Teamsters, the Soviets, the CIA, the military and Lyndon B Johnson, will continue to believe this no matter what. To paraphrase Jonathan Swift, you can’t reason someone out of a viewpoint they were never reasoned into in the first place.
Conspiracy theories appear to be on the rise with seemingly more people willing to believe in them than ever before. Going on the current evidence, it seems that the US is more susceptible to this unhealthy fixation than many other countries. This was something observed by Richard Hofstadter, the famed historian, in 1964, when he referred to the “paranoid style” in American history, an attempt to explain this phenomena.
Long live paranoia
Since then a variety of explanations have been advanced to account for why conspiracy theories are so embedded in the US’s political culture. One is simply the fact that America was founded on a conspiracy, with the Founding Fathers plotting together to overthrow the British colonial regime. A fear of tyranny and government overreach has been part of the political culture ever since.
It’s often forgotten that after the revolution the Alien and Sedition Act was passed by the Adams administration to persecute his political enemies. For many Americans, government should either be suspected or feared.
Equally, the mainstream media has fed this paranoia. The past few decades have seen a steady stream of movies and TV shows based around conspiracy theories turning out to be true. The most obvious example is the X-Files which repeatedly told viewers that “the truth is out there”.
Is the truth out there?
The most famous film on the subject of the Kennedy assassination is probably Oliver Stone’s JFK from 1991. While entertaining, it does take tremendous liberties with certain details. For instance, one sequence of the film shows a shadowy figure faking the photo of Oswald holding the gun. Who this figure is, who they work for, and what their motive is, is never established and this sums up the main problem with Stone’s work. It doesn’t always makes clear what are hard facts, what is conjecture, and what is entirely invented for dramatic purposes.
Even the news media isn’t immune from this madness. Some TV stations and media commentators skate uncomfortably close to giving such theories a credence they don’t deserve.
Unfortunately, conspiracy theories always sell, and as competition for ratings increases, it’s easy to see their attraction for the unscrupulous. In a country where freedom of speech is venerated as the most important right, it’s perhaps no surprise that some would take it to extremes, giving a platform to anyone with an opinion and a product to plug.
When conspiracy theories come true
The internet also plays a powerful role. It’s created a maze of echo chambers where people only hear what they want to hear. While previously those wanting to believe were largely isolated within their communities, they can now gather together online in their thousands to share ideas and theories. This leads to conspiracies being spread across the globe, each time being modified and amplified. The creator of the theory then takes the fact that everyone else is talking about it as evidence that there must be something in it.
Finally, there is the inescapable fact that sometimes this distrust of government is rooted in good cause. The shock of the Watergate revelations and the Iran-Contra scandal still reverberate throughout the American political psyche. More recently we were taken into the War in Iraq on the basis of at best faulty intelligence, at worst a lie.
As a result, it’s perhaps not unsurprising that people are much more willing to believe in conspiracies to explain the complexity of modern life. However, those who believe we never went to the moon will never change their minds, neither I suspect will the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists.