After exploring how museums are portrayed in the movies, I thought it was time to see what authors do with museums. Alas, Museums in Books is nowhere near as catchy a title as Museums and the Movies but I suppose it will have to do.
To kick this new series off, I’m going to look at The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy, written by noted director of films Alfred Hitchcock in 1968. I’m starting here because not only does it fit my current Mummy obsession (with the infamous Unlucky Mummy in particular) but it crosses over with Museums and the Movies in such a pleasing way.
Now, The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy is a children’s book. I found my copy in a charity shop when I was a youngling, attracted not just by the enigmatic Egyptian connection, but also because the name “Alfred Hitchcock” was beginning to mean something to me.
So, what was “The Master of Suspense” doing in a museum with a mummy?
Hitchcock uses a fictionalised version of himself to introduce the case to a gang of plucky pre-pubescent Private Investigators via a letter that takes them to “an old Spanish style mansion, one wing of which had been turned into a private museum by the owner, Professor Robert Yarborough.” I rather like Yarborough, he wants to do some testing on his mummy that, in its time, was not unlike what the British Museum are doing with their Ancient Lives exhibition.
OK, so there’s already a bit of cheating going on; the museum isn’t really a proper one. It’s not so much a museum as it is this aged academic’s collection of “several statues that had been taken from the old tombs in Egypt.” Including one of the funerary god Anubis, who is “a dark inky blot of a rather unnerving shape.”
I feel that Anubis, more than the other Egyptian gods, gets the short end of the stick. He isn’t even an evil deity, but is always cast as the villain.
However, our initial tour of Prof Yarborough’s museum has just started…
“Other relics taken from the tombs of Ancient Egypt crowded the room. Metal masks that seemed to smile with secret knowledge hung on the walls. Clay tablets, gold jewellery, and ancient scarabs brooded in glass cases.” We’re starting to feel very claustrophobic in here. The objects take up all the space, and the dramatic descriptions make them loom out at us. The museum is more of a background thing than anything . The story could have easily done away with this, but with a mummy, you do rather need a museum.
But what about the mummy?
“It was a very plain mummy case with a lid, on which was carved the features of the mummy inside. It was a very plain mummy case with no gold leaf or painted colours to make it look rich and luxurious.”
This goes against our preconceived notions of what a mummy and its case are supposed to look like. Hitchcock is suggesting that things don’t need to be visually stimulating in order to be important. Naturally, once we meet the mummy, there’s a mention of “unravelling the mystery.” I don’t think anyone could not say that.
Instead of the mummy coming back to life (as they so often do) this one begins speaking. Sudden conversation is much easier for pint-sized P.Is to explain than sudden reanimation. It also speaks to how the past metaphorically speaks to us through museums. Or something.
Now, we’re dealing with a fictional mummy that’s behaving oddly. So I’m surprised we have to wait until pg 37 to read “There was a curse put on its tomb and anyone who entered it or disturbed Ra-Orkon. Over the years the curse has taken the lives of almost all the members of the original expedition.” Doesn’t that sound familiar?
The usual fictional Egyptian tropes also come out to play: ‘”I am calling my cat,” Hamid explained. “In it lives the spirit of Ra-Orkon, and it will help us find the mummy.”‘
But, back to the museum-y aspect of the story, it seems that even in 1968 museums had to deal with the awkward question of where they got their treasures. Hitchcock consistently uses the word ‘taken’ to describe acquisition, which carries much more negativity than ‘found’ or ‘discovered’ which could also have been used.
The ‘takers’, or more specifically the Field Archaeologists come across as greedy and corrupt. One ultimately comes across as the villain, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. The fact that this kind of character is the villain speaks volumes, and you know what, is rather timely for today as more and more museums are selling off their artefacts.
Or it could be a dig at those adventurers who desecrated tombs for profit. You decide.