Although accounts of vampires and werewolves may be supernatural, at least one of the top stars of the classic monster universe is rooted in reality: the Mummy. Based on the burial practices of Ancient Egyptians, who preserved the body as a preparation for the afterlife, the custom began to take on a spooky aura only in the 20th century, after the 1922 discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen and rumors of a curse visited upon those who entered the space. The whole world went Tut-mad, and by the early ’30s, the Boris Karloff vehicle The Mummy had launched a cinematic fright enterprise that continued through Hollywood’s Golden Age, reaching a recent peak with the 1999 Brendan Fraser update of the same name (we shan’t mention the Tom Cruise debacle of 2017).
And just in time for Halloween, mummies are back in the news: In early October stories broke that 59 coffins of Egyptian priests had been discovered in August near Cairo, and a team of archaeologists had opened one of the tombs, leading to all sorts of Internet damnation and scarification. For a bit of historical fun as well as a seasonal chill, the institutions below provide permanent and temporary mummy-related exhibitions sure to provide visitors with a few edifying goose bumps.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Cleopatra’s Needle
New York City
One of the country’s most famous locales for Egyptian art and artifacts, The Met has around 26,000 pieces in its collection, ranging from funerary figures and sculptures of goddess heads to games evoking the voyage to the underworld. But perhaps the most famous item on display is the Temple of Dendur (circa 15 BC), commissioned by Emperor Augustus and dedicated to the gods Isis and Osiris. A gift from Egypt to the United States, it was removed from its original location in 1963 and installed in a grand space complete with a reflecting pool and ravishing views of Central Park outside. And in the actual park behind the museum visitors can find Cleopatra’s Needle, a 69-foot-tall, 200-ton obelisk from 1475 BC that was once displayed in Alexandria. Erected in New York in 1881, the hieroglyph-inscribed object is one of two sets of twins, the others residing in London, Paris and Luxor.
“Golden Mummies of Egypt”
Buffalo Museum of Science
Buffalo, New York
This exhibition—running in Buffalo through October 20 and opening in Raleigh's North Carolina Museum of Art in February 2021—spotlights the well-to-do of the ancient world (circa 300 BC), with more than 100 objects on loan from England’s Manchester Museum, including eight mummies encased in gold (the better to gain the gods’ approval). Masks, coffins and jewelry are also showcased, as well as CT scan technology uncovering what lies beneath the wrappings.
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology
Another of the country’s outstanding collections can be found at this university museum, whose archaeologists have been conducting expeditions in Egypt for more than a century. Chief among the displays is a statue of Pharaoh Ramses II, a limestone sarcophagus featuring spells from the Book of the Dead, and a coffin lid crowned by a gold-covered mask, as well as a mummified cat, crocodile and falcon, illuminating both ceremonial practices and Egyptians’ belief in the sacred power of animals.
“Mummies of the World”
Carnegie Science Center
This comprehensive traveling exhibition, currently on view in Pittsburgh, goes beyond Egypt to include more than 120 mummies and assorted objects from Europe, Africa, the Middle East and South America. Of particular—if somewhat ghoulish—interest are the Vác mummies, victims of tuberculosis who were sealed in a Hungarian crypt in 1838. Because of the climatic conditions—consistent humidity, a moderate temperature—the bodies were preserved and, even more fascinating, their names, occupations and ages documented by church records.
Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum
San Jose, California
More than 4,000 artifacts are displayed at this institution, which contains the largest collection of Ancient Egyptian objects in the West. Founded in the early 20th century, the society and museum—named for the Rosicrucians, students of occult wisdom and mysticism—sponsored Egyptian excavations, with many of the finds making their way here. Visitors enter through an elaborate portal based on the Karnak Temple; the curiosities inside include a full reproduction of a tomb at Beni Hasan, where guests can imagine taking part in an expedition.
Museum of the Mummies of Guanajuato
Few places can claim to have inspired a Ray Bradbury short story, the atmospheric opening of Werner Herzog’s film Nosferatu the Vampyre, and a ’70s cult movie about a Mexican wrestler battling the undead. But such is the oversized legend of the Mummies of Guanajuato, a collection of naturally preserved bodies displayed at the World Heritage Site in central Mexico. A 19th-century cholera outbreak led to the deaths of thousands of people who were then hurriedly interred. When they were later exhumed, those whose relatives didn’t pay a tax were stored in a local structure, which began to attract curiosity seekers. By 1969, the place had officially become a museum, with claims to notoriety including the world’s smallest mummy.