My mother and I are in the British Museum and we don’t have much time. We join the last guided tour for the day. It’s a crash course in history, the last five thousand years of civilization on fast forward, just the highlights, the really good bits: The obsidian pharaoh heads at the entrance, each smooth visage reaching higher than a person. The reconstructed gates of Babylon, tall and narrow like sin. The reassembled Greek temple, a lit stage that makes you want to impromptu a Greek tragedy. Some Viking treasure from a bog in Ireland. A Buddha sitting on a giant brass lotus. The Rosetta stone, gleaming black under the spotlights, its trilingual text painted correction ink white, the cheat code to three different languages and cultures.
Then the highlight of the exhibits and the tour, and probably what most visitors come to see: the Egyptian mummies. They’re in glass cages in a room with six doors. Through each door a serpent of people snakes around the glass and out another entrance.
The mummies lie in wooden crates or sit or stand behind the glass. Remnants of the fabric that once covered them still cling to their limbs. Their skin is taut and shrunken, plastered over cutting tendons, sinews and muscle, resembling dried codfish or grilled chicken wings left out for too long. A few strands of hair cling precariously to the wrinkled pates. These people have been old for more than two millennia and it shows.
My backpack fills half the space that could have fit one more person inside the warm and stuffy room, and the queue hates it. People try to push past my backpack. I’m wedged between two lines moving in opposite directions and pressed against the glass cage.
I stare into the dry mummy faces and smell them through the leaky corner seals, a stench of dust, decomposition and preserving chemicals, signifying sickness, dryness and defeat, not eternal pharaonic life. One of them still has some skin dangling between his legs. I wish intensely for discretion, or at least a pair of underpants, but mummies don’t care about such things and laugh in my face. I lose.
Two years later I’m back and want to see everything I missed the first time. I love the bearded lions and the Mediterranean vases, the Roman wrestlers, the Egyptian marriage statues, the Tibetan phurba, dorje and bells. After six hours in ancient history heaven, I return to the Egyptian exhibit and pass the mummy room. It’s crowded like last time, when I got a much better look at the mummies than I ever wanted. I don’t need to see them again.
I go to the restroom and the circular washbowl where eight people can clean their hands at the same time. But when I get back to the exhibits, I’m distracted for a moment and become caught in the lines to the mummy room. This time my backpack is smaller, but once again, I’m pressed up against the glass: I smell the mummies’ bad breath and rotten body odor, before the queue pushes me out the door again.
Another two years and I’m in the museum again with a clear goal: No more mummies! Instead, I climb the stairs to an East Asian exhibit tucked away on the upper floors. A lone museum guard makes sure everyone pays a pound before they enter.
There’s an artwork I recognize and like; a white cat sitting in a window, gazing out over the rooftops of old Edo, Mount Fuji in the distance. I run over to it and press my nose against the glass. The cat looks round and soft and the red and blue color gradation in the dusk sky shines, more vivid than any reproduction. The guard looks at me. There are no other visitors in the room. I keep staring at the woodblock print. Can’t a woman look at the picture of a cat when she wants to?
But then I move on to the other prints and understand the reason for his attention. The exhibit’s title, which I somehow missed on the way in, despite large posters, is “Erotic Prints of Japan”. The other woodblock prints are bulging members, pubic hair drawn in too much detail to be healthy, silk and cotton hitched over white bottoms and straining thighs, all flapping in the wind, all for the taking. It’s men and women and women and women and men and men, of all ages and positions and settings. Even the cute cat print is pornographic, only off camera and unseen. Red-faced, I hurry out of the room and down the stairs. The museum guard laughs behind his hand.
I retreat to the permanent exhibits and bury my embarrassment and lack of observational skills in the crowds. When I can face the world again, I’m in the mummy room, caught in the current of tourists and school classes and history students to the glass.
And there are the ugly mummies again, grinning with their brittle skin and chicken bone legs and toothless gums, welcoming me back:
“Hello, how are you? Now you’ve got to admit we’re beautiful, shrunken heads and genitals and all! We saved you from the porn exhibit, so come admire us instead!”
I realize I can never set foot in the British Museum again.
published 12 November 2011