A Mummy Rots in Kolkata

Is this any way to treat a guest?

An Egyptian mummy in residence at the Indian Museum has been rotting in its display case thanks to a broken air conditioning system, the Times of India reports.

Temperatures in Koltaka, the sticky city formerly known as Calcutta, are forecasted to reach a high of 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Celsius) this week, with more than 50 percent humidity.

None of the air conditioners at the museum’s Egyptian gallery, essential for maintaining a steady sub-23°C and the humidity low, is working. As a result, the mummy-considered the museum’s top draw -is decaying fast, and might not last much longer, said a senior museum official.

The decay might not be immediately visible, but the stench – thanks to the excessively hot and humid atmosphere in the gallery – seems to be a pointer in that direction. Visitors are forced to cover their noses to keep the stench out.

“If there is no AC then other arrangements should be made, such as sending the mummy to a museum in a dry, desert environment, or having the AC fixed, or maybe improving the case,” Salima Ikram, chief of the Egyptology unit at the American University in Cairo, told News Watch.

“It is deplorable that it should be treated so.”

On Friday a museum spokesman claimed the air conditioning had been repaired, but the gallery was closed and continued to emit a rotting odor when a Times of India reporter visited on Saturday.

The mummy was a gift to the Asiatic Society of Bengal, which founded the museum, from a British officer, Lieutenant E.C. Archbold of the Bengal Light Calvary, in 1834, according to the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal:

“The mummy was obtained with some difficulty from the tombs of the kings at Gourvah,” the society reported in its minutes. “The native crew on board the ship … having objected to receive the Mummy in his baggage, he had been under the necessity of requesting one of the officers of the Sloop of War Coote to bring it onward to Bombay, whence it will be forwarded to Calcutta by the earliest opportunity.”

“Gourvah” appears to be a mistranslation of the tombs at Gourna, on the western bank of the Nile at Luxor.

In those days, foreigners were willy-nilly dragging mummies and other antiquities out of Egypt with little regard for scholarship or preservation.  Egyptian authorities are still trying to get some of those objects back.

I last visited the Indian Museum in 2011. Its collection is huge and the place inspires real affection.

At that time, however, the museum had done a dismal job of communicating to the public the context and significance of the objects on display, and maintenance appeared terrible. A 2,000-year-old stone lion from the Ashokan period was severely damaged during a recent renovation, the Art Newspaper reported.

According to a 2013 audit report, inspectors “observed significant shortcomings in the functioning of [India’s] Museums in relation to acquisition, documentation and conservation of acquired art objects.”

The museum has one of the biggest collections in Asia, with a strong emphasis on natural history. The archaeology collection includes pieces from prehistoric times to the Mogul period, including antiquities from Mohenjo Daro and the Harappan civilization.

The museum celebrated its 200th anniversary in February of this year, with a nice facelift and many renovated galleries.

Those efforts apparently didn’t extend to the Egyptian gallery.

“Significantly,” Krishnendu Bandyopadhyay of the Times of India reported, “the offices of the museum officials do not have malfunctioning ACs.”


Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Dan Morrison is a contributor to National Geographic Voices. From 2007 to 2012 he reported for National Geographic News from South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, filing dispatches on climate change, conflict, the environment, and antiquities. Dan is author of The Black Nile , a nonfiction account of his 3,600-mile journey down the length of the White Nile through Uganda, Sudan, and Egypt. The Daily Beast called The Black Nile "a masterful narrative of investigative reportage, travel writing, and contemporary history," and The Village Voice named it one of the Ten Best of 2010. Dan was a 2013 United Nations Foundation Global Health Fellow. Currently at work on a book about the Ganges River, Dan also contributes to the New York Times, POLITICO Magazine, Slate, The Arabist Network and the Dhaka Tribune. To contact Dan please see his website.