Egyptian mummy pen
Materials: moulded plastic, gold paint, metal, ink
Dinensions: 9 centimeters high
Place acquired: Auckland Museum shop
Place of manufacture: China
Despite the efforts of Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan-Doyle, Boris Karloff and a clutch of Hollywood horror films, the Egyptian mummy has never quite made it as an enduring character of horror in the Western popular imagination. Vampires play on our fear of parasitism and sexual transgression; werewolves, our fear of the wild and of uncontrollable nature; zombies and ghosts are the dreaded ‘undecided’, neither dead nor alive. But the mummy, well it’s really just a dead body wrapped in bandages. The horror genre has played with various possibilities: reanimation (a-la zombie), but the bandages tend to get in the way; the ‘curse’ of the mummy, but that has limited possibilities; necrophilia even, but humour and farce seem to be ever lurking in the wings.
This dramatic weakness has allowed another type of mummy to emerge in Western popular culture. It’s a cosy, fake-scary, ‘Scooby-Doo’ type of character of which this novelty ballpoint pen is a good example. I found it in the gift shop of a national museum. It was there because the museum was showing a temporary exhibition of Egyptian mummies, sarcophagi and the latest scientific advances in imaging and interpreting these ancient funerary relics.
And so here, within the walls of a museum, we have a clash of cultures, not so much between ancient Egypt and our modern world, but between archeological study and popular culture. Since at least the 18th century there has been great interest in the archaeology of ancient Egypt, and with the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone in the early 19th century and then later discoveries, like Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1924, there has been a growing academic discipline that even has its own name: Egyptology. Alongside the scholarly interest there has always been a popular interest as well, reflected in fashion, architecture, design and popular fiction. These interests, academic and popular, seem to have come together in the modern museum whose task, as always, is to entertain as well as to educate.
Exactly what the mummy meant for the people who lived along the Nile flood plain four thousand years ago, is more difficult for us to imagine. But like us, these people had a sense of humour, so it is just possible they too would have enjoyed at the idea of a pen in the shape of a dead body.