Volume 75
Number 1

Why do Voles Fall in Love?

The Once and Future Mummy Museum

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Pop Culture





The Once and Future Mummy Museum

Thousands of visitors cherish memories of Emory’s Egyptian collection. A spectacular new trove of funerary art guarantees continued public fascination

AIDED BY A GENEROUS response from the Atlanta community, the Michael C. Carlos Museum quickly raised nearly $2 million last February to secure the acquisition of a significant collection of Egyptian artifacts.

Faced with a deadline of seven days to amass the purchase price, museum officials turned to the public for help in a campaign that played out in the pages of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. At week’s end, $1,725,000 had been raised—enough to secure a commitment from the collection’s private owner to sell the antiquities to Emory.

"We had kindergarten classes that broke open piggy banks and people who would walk up with ten dollars," says museum director of development David L. Curry. "It was a great accomplishment for Emory and, we hope, for the entire city."

The fund-raising effort was buoyed by hundreds of donations ranging from ten dollars to $1 million, including a $250,000 gift from the Forward Arts Foundation of Atlanta.

The eighty-piece collection is highlighted by ten mummies and nine coffins excavated in Egypt in the 1860s. It also includes a wealth of jewelry, bronze sculptures, amulets, pottery, basketry, and relief art spanning a period from 1000 B.C. to the second century A.D. It has been on display in the Niagara Falls area since the mid-nineteenth century but has never been studied by scholars.

Part of the allure of the collection is the possible presence of the mummy of Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses I. Once the mummy is in Atlanta, researchers will compare its DNA to that of the remains of Ramesses’ son, Seti I, in the Cairo Museum. If the mummy is that of Ramesses I, it would be the only pharaoh housed outside Egypt.

"There is a good chance," says Carlos curator of ancient art Peter Lacovara. "The physical resemblance to Seti is encouraging."

For Emory and the Carlos Museum, the acquisition is considered a coup that will rank the museum’s collection of ancient Egyptian funerary art among the best in the United States. The number of mummies and coffins alone rivals that found in any single collection, and the quality of the painting on some of the coffins is representative of the peak period of Egyptian funerary art.

"The quality is such that it would put the Carlos on par with the great collections of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston," says Carlos Director Anthony G. Hirschel.

The new acquisition will join a much-loved permanent collection of Egyptian artifacts that includes three mummies and two coffins, several statues and burial items, and a fragment from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The total collection will grow to about six hundred individual pieces once the Niagara acquisition is in place, including a number of key loans from private collectors and other institutions.

"It’s a great opportunity, with far greater quality and scope than we have now, and it will allow us to fill in the gaps to cover most of the Egyptian time frames," Lacovara says of the newly acquired collection.

Lacovara was contacted about the collection’s availability late last year by colleagues at Canadian museums who had been approached by its seller. By quickly traveling to Canada and becoming the first American curator to see the collection, Lacovara was given the opportunity to express Emory’s interest before other museums learned of its availability.

Eventually, other major institutions in the U.S. and abroad expressed competing interest in the cache, and private collectors and museums sought individual pieces, but the seller was determined to keep the collection intact.

"I’d heard rumors about this collection for years," Lacovara says. "It was amazing to see how many artifacts there were, and how beautiful they were."

By the first week of March, total donations reached the target of $2 million. If all goes as planned, the collection will reach Atlanta by mid-May. A few of the pieces will be displayed soon thereafter, with the entire collection being shown in a major exhibition in 2001.

The arrival of the Niagara Falls collection provides a serendipitous centerpiece for the celebration of the Carlos Museum’s eightieth anniversary. The origins of a campus collection date back to the 1919 founding of the Emory University Museum, which housed biological exhibits and items excavated from the Etowah Indian Mounds in north Georgia. The collection’s quality was greatly enhanced a year later following an excursion to the Middle East by William A. Shelton, a professor of Semitic languages and literature at the Candler School of Theology, who returned with some two hundred fifty artifacts, including Emory’s first mummies.

The museum was housed at a number of campus sites before settling into the basement of the Old Law Building, where it remained little more than a local curiosity until the mid-1980s. A $1.5 million gift from Atlanta businessman and philanthropist Michael C. Carlos provided for the 1985 renovation of the building by renowned architect Michael Graves and the creation of the Emory Museum of Art and Archaeology. A second gift from Carlos of $4.5 million enabled the 1993 construction of the Michael C. Carlos Museum, also designed by Graves, which incorporates the Old Law Building and provides forty-five-thousand square feet of exhibition and research space.

Complementing the museum’s collection of Egyptian art are permanent collections of Near Eastern and Classical antiquities, art from the ancient Americas, and a nine-hundred-piece collection from sub-Saharan Africa acquired in 1994. Holdings also include Oceanic and Asian art and American and European works on paper.


When I was very young, my mother took me to see the mummies at the Emory Museum. Since then, I’ve seen the mummies at the British Museum and the Cairo Museum but never with the wonder and awe I still remember at Emory.

—A contributor to the Carlos Museum’s much-publicized mummy fund drive

The quality is such that it would put the Carlos on par with the great collections of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

—Carlos Director Anthony G. Hirschel


©1999 Emory University