The Afterlife of the British Museum
Ghost Stories of the British Museum, a project by Noah Angell and Francis Gooding—initiated in 2016, first exhibited at Rib in Rotterdam—documents the rich internal folklore of haunted spaces, unquiet objects, and inexplicable occurrences that has long circulated privately among the British Museum’s former and current employees. For Mousse, Lucy Cotter has written “The Afterlife of the British Museum,” which is informed by the interview material gathered by Angell & Gooding and by a conversation with Rib director Maziar Afrassiabi. Ghost Stories of the British Museum will be on display at Tenderbooks in London during August-September 2018 as Angell and Gooding work towards publishing a book on the project in 2019.
“The Afterlife of the British Museum”
by Lucy Cotter
ACT ONE, Scene I
Late evening in Room 1 of the British Museum, London. An elongated room, lined from floor to ceiling with book cabinets, on front of which stand rows of display cases. Leather-bound books, archaeological artifacts and curiosities from global voyages collectively showcase “the world” from the perspective of the Enlightenment. The former library of King George III and the oldest room in the museum, the pervading atmosphere is one of time standing still. The scene revolves around Display Case No. 118, which is labeled “Egyptian wooden steles, mummified cats, dog and heads, canoptic jars and shabtis.”
HEAD 1[Exhibit 54740]:Egyptian mummified head in bell jar, Dynasty unknown.
HEAD 2 [Exhibit 54741]: Egyptian mummified head in bell jar, Dynasty unknown.
Time: Present Day
HEAD 1 [Exhibit 54740]: Is my flesh still human? My brain recalls no more, eyes dimmed by the light shimmering between bell jar and bookcase. Ears deafened to those passing bodies, I refrain from thinking what it is they see. Two heads between porcelain and animal remains. The slow flaking of dried skin on withered bone. An open mouth, screaming at the moment of death. How do they not see us, Paser?
HEAD 2 [Exhibit 54741]: I cannot answer; their doings fall too far beyond The Maxims of Ptahhotep. My kawanes too, but let us keep our hearts in balance so that our tongues are accurate when our lips speak. Recall Meriptah that we are the only “objects” here reflecting on our being. Our bones, our skin, are the ashen shadows of the Enlightenment. We are its very conscience, like a beating heart in something upon which dust long settled.
HEAD 1 [Exhibit 54740]: The truth is hidden more deeply than precious stones. The day of yesters, men and women of young years talked of repatriation of our bones, as if we did not listen. I wished to counsel them that after 200 years in this damp land I understand myself in signs that have no bearing on Egypt. I too want to return to Thebes, in accounting of the wrongs to our people, but our histories cannot be separated like a river into tributaries. The greed of Sloane is not undone, nor his legacy in the children of the great. Was his fathership of the Royal Society not the end of Newton’s good counsel?
HEAD 2 [Exhibit 54741]: Yay, but Newton was not as spotless and unsnared as a temple dove. The harsh light of science glowed from his gravity and calculus, driving away the place of silence and ba. He hid his wisdom on alchemyand silenced the shadow words he cast on the Book of Bible.
HEAD 1 [Exhibit 54740]:Guard against slanderous speech! Let us leave his judgment to the Hall of the two Ma’ats, not forgetting that Newton was attacked as a man of the Occult for his scribings on gravity. And alchemists were hung in front of the eyes of all men in his lifetime. Sharp are the knives against he who transgresses the road!
HEAD 2 [Exhibit 54741]: You are wise of course, but my heart and mind must imagine if it were not so. Zosimos of Panopolis as the father of knowledge, no false wall between alchemy and science. Imagine, Paser, if Newton had turned his mind to the passage of states, to scribing what metallurgic distillation meant for human energy. All might be different now in the horizon of the sky of men.
ACT ONE, Scene 2
Nighttime in the Reading Room, a 19thcentury circular library with high vaulted ceilings in the Great Court of the British Museum, London. The atmosphere is church-like, befitting a historic centre of learning. The characters are seated in the central area, which is lit by pools of light emanating from reading lamps.
Octavia Hill(1838-1912):British Female, aged 74. Champion of social reform in housing, arts policy, welfare, conservation and co-founder of the National Trust. Her pioneering Model Houses for Families was established close to the British museum and drew on the museum’s network for philanthropic support.
Johnny Riordan (1955-2008): British Male, aged 53. Former warder, British Museum. Father of four, collector of motorcross memorabilia.
Cottie Arthur Burland(1905-1983): British male, aged 78. Author, researcher into North American Indian and South American culture, magic and alchemy. Former employee of the Ethnography Department, British Museum.
Sir William Crookes (1832-1919): British male, aged 87.Renowned chemist, physicist, and pioneer of vacuum tubes. Later president of the Society for Psychical Research and president of The Ghost Club, London.
Time: Present Day
Octavia Hill: I think we’ve covered the first two points of today’s meeting: “Negotiating with the Honour the Ancient Dead activists”, and “Repatriation and postcolonial issues”. We have ascertained that the largest percentage of human remains stems from English burial grounds, but that this is not reflected in the displays, which demonstrate a non-Western bias. We have agreed to inform ourselves about the Black Lives Matter movement for the next meeting to help us determine the extent to which race might determine this selection. For now let us try to move onto our final point, “Finding evidence of after-life.” We have partly called this plenary as a sign of our commitment to being more proactive in tackling the question of how to establish our own existence in ways that go beyond addressing the ethics and politics of our existence as human remains in the museum. This is not a new issue for anyone here, so let us first briefly review the kind of strategies we have been using to date. Perhaps the most consistent have been the production of unexplainable sounds, the maintenance of ambient cold spots, the random opening of locked doors, the movement of mummies in cases, and occasional poltergeist activity including moving furniture and falling objects. We’ve already discussed the museum’s heightened awareness of that activity during the Germany: Memories of a Nationexhibition. Have I forgotten anything?
Sir William Crookes: Octavia dear, it strikes me that all of the strategies you have listed are very mechanical in nature, and, if I might say so, rather clichéd ghost activities. This is precisely the sort of thing that we recorded in the so-called “haunted” buildings in our investigations with the Ghost Club a hundred years ago. The fact that we donated our archives to the British Museum collection might in principle serve as in-house evidence that these physical phenomena are paranormal activity. But because of their physical nature, a skeptic could equally argue that it’s just pranks or even guards who are interested in the paranormal replicating such activity.
Johnny Riordan: As if we were all bloody pranksters.
Cottie Burland: Well even you couldn’t see through psychic fraud, Sir William, if you don’t mind me bringing that up. But do you have any idea how to get out of this vicious circle?
Sir William Crookes: What we really need, of course, is contemporary scientific proof —either for the Large Hadron Collider to detect our existence, or for an extension to the Standard Model of Particle Physics to be developed to explain how our existence has escaped detection. We must specify precisely what medium we are made of and how it interacts with the matter particles out of which our bodies are made. That’s almost inconceivable at the energy scales typical of the particle interactions in our bodies. But we are making some progress through Quantum Field Theory, which at least reveals that the universe is energy-based. It’s like a return of Socrates with the technology to prove it. But we still need to communicate the relevance of those developments to the museum. It’s still a Two Cultures world, I’m afraid.
Octavia Hill: Sir William, I’m afraid you might have lost us all. What exactly is it that you think concerns us? Perhaps you can explain it in layman’s terms —or laywoman’s terms. Does that phrase exist yet?
Sir William Crookes: Forgive me for rambling on like that. I suppose one of the most interesting things for our purpose is that Quantum Field Theory proves that everythingis a consequence of infinitely large fields vibrating, so the energy inherent in objects has to be acknowledged for a start. While it does not explain why some visitors to the museum would be more sensitive to the energy emanating from specific objects, it does help to open more people’s mind to the possibility. It’s highly speculative and therefore very contestable, but another noteworthy fact is that some Quantum fields can “see” other fields, even though they are blind to others, which might help to explain the apparent invisibility of our presence. The photon field can for example interact with the fields of charged particles but cannot see gluon or neutrino fields. On the other hand, a photon can interact indirectly with the gluon field, first by making quark vibrations, which then produce gluon vibrations. So “visibility” is possible via an energetic mediator, so to speak, even on a micro-level. Scientists are very skeptical of making links between consciousness and quantum theory, but they have not been able to disprove their interrelationship or to find any other viable source of consciousness. So if you consider that the entire universe is made of fields playing a subatomic symphony, then there is no reason to assume that its music could not include communication across living and “dead” matter, which QFT shows to be all electron-based anyway.
Octavia Hill: I’m not sure I understood all of that, but it sounds very promising. Let’s not forget that this great museum was founded with the express purpose of improving people. Surely, taking into consideration the long role of the British Museum in scientific research, we should begin with the staff here? Why aren’t we exposing the director or other highly placed individuals to experiences that would make it impossible for them notto believe in our existence. Surely there is someone who is claircognizant in some way or another?
Sir William Crookes: I made a number of attempts to communicate directly with MacGregor. He’s very rational but he isthe sensitive type, so I thought he might be clairaudient. But he stepped down so soon afterwards that I hardly made any leeway. I don’t know if this new director will be able to help us at all. Even if he was open to direct communication, that wouldn’t necessarily mean owning up to those beliefs or incorporating them into institutional policy. I have to say that based on my own embarrassing experiences of supporting improper psychic claims, I do have great sympathy for fears of a professional loss of face.
Johnny Riordan: Look, I’m only an ordinary guard and if I hadn’t carked it in the old ballroom, I wouldn’t be in the company of educated men and women like your good selves. But let me say this much: We warders worked damnhard to influence MacGregor during the German show. Several of us were onto him about strange stuff going on, like the flashing lights that appeared every bloody night for weeks. We could see it all on the security monitors, but the museum staff was too stuck up their own arses to listen to us, if you pardon my French.
Octavia Hill: Downright podsnappery! Sounds like very little has changed since my time.
Sir William Crookes: That’s debatable dear, but the question is what we are trying to achieve now. Surely the last thing we want is for the British Museum to be added to the Haunted Buildings of London list. All of those amateur ghost-busters with their Geiger counters and EMF detectors. Is that the height of our ambitions?
Octavia Hill: Certainly not, the greater challenge is to have the existence of an expanded reality widely acknowledged by all society. It’s about getting rid of the taboos at every level of the social spectrum. Statistics show that 47% of Britons today actually dobelieve in ghosts, with the highly educated — and women— having a greater tendency towards belief. But that doesn’t mean the educated will own up to their beliefs or openly use them in their professional capacity.
Johnny Riordan: No, they’re all bloody cowards. The more highfalutin the worse it gets. Like the curators here, who are too stuck in their books to have any common sense at all. It’s the floor staff that knows this museum and the shenanigans that go on here. But there hasn’t yet been a director yet who has taken our experiences seriously. When the mummy cases started moving and the cleaning women refused to clean them, the museum just outsourced to a new company. No one ever talked to the poor women, who had been down on their hands and knees scrubbing this place for years. That’s thanks for you!
Octavia Hill: So it seems that the hierarchies of the old days are still standing in the way of a museum-wide communication of these experiences. How very disappointing! Yet, statistically speaking, almost half of the employees must believe in the existence of ghosts. So it’s surely a matter of creating a museum culture in which those experiences and the knowledge that goes with them can be discussed. How can we possibly reform this place?
Cottie Burland: What we need is more staff like Irving Finkel to point out the fact that every culture and every people have acknowledged the existence of an afterlife until modern Western culture. Calling it a question of “belief” is belittling. It’s a fundamental aspect of the human psyche.
Octavia Hill: Yes, but we’re not invited to think about that, are we? By displaying ancient non-Western cultural beliefs in the afterlife, the museum here also distances the present and the West from any kind of spiritual reality. It makes it seem retrograde or even barbaric.
Cottie Burland: That’s what I’m starting to realize, but unfortunately I also consolidated that perception through my anthropological work for the museum. I wasn’t personally open to the possibility of an afterlife until my RAF years when I saw people die for the first time… I remember this young soldier, who had been shot and was losing a lot of blood. After he took his last breath, I could feel him standing behind me. I had this warm sensation all over my back, as if he was comforting me… You can’t discount those kinds of experiences, even if you want to. But when I came back to the museum I shut all of that out. It wasn’t until after I retired that I allowed myself to feel things again. That’s when I wrote After Science: A Journey into the Supernatural. So I did my bit then, I guess, although I wish I had said a lot more.
Johnny Riordan: There was a warder here for a long time, Dave, who had a lot of experiences. Some of the young lads would go to him and talk to him when they had something funny happen to them in one of the galleries. But he’s gone now and I don’t think there’s anyone to replace him in that way. He’ll be sorely missed.
Octavia Hill: Well it’s a pity that Dave fellow isn’t here to talk to us. But Cottie dear, could you perhaps tell us more about how it felt to be alive and to encounter the dead? I didn’t have those kinds of experiences myself. I was too busy fighting causes for the living!
Cottie Burland: We all know now that so-called “ghosts” are everywhere, all of the time, like living people, but I already knew that then. Sometimes, at relaxed moments, I could see the room filling up with presences. I mostly saw them as a hazy white light, just about materializing into form. Once I met a man who had killed himself, who materialized so fully that I could see every detail of his clothes, his haircut and his face. He talked to me as if we were old friends. I used to hear a lot of voices too, different people telling me things I needed to know. Several of the observations I made in Magic Books from Mexico couldn’t have been written without their help. It can be quite lonely professionally not to be able to talk openly about it. There’s a dogmatic expectation that being highly educated equates with having a secular materialist perception of reality.
Octavia Hill: O dear, that’s rather sorrowful to hear. Did you not talk to a single living soul about your experiences?
Cottie Burland: No, at least not with any of the staff here, as far as I can recall. But I remember when Jung came to lecture on the Artis Auriferae —now there’s proof of our existence in our collection! — Sorry, I’d better not get started on that… What I want to say is that Jung was very forthright about the fact that his understandings of alchemy and the archetypes —indeed his whole career—had been built on working out things that had been passed on to him in dreams and through psychic experiences. I didn’t do my own research on alchemy or have any psychic experiences myself until much later, but I remember being struck by that. Years later during my research, I noticed that the period Jung described in his autobiography as being dominated by those “inner images” was referred to by other academics as a complete nervous breakdown. I don’t know how we can get around those kinds of prejudices.
Sir William Crookes: We have to focus on the individuals who can sense the complexity of our existence. Thackeray once stood in this room and said, “In the great circle of the library, Time is looking into Space”. He could not have understood the full significance of his observation, but it comes so close to our experience of space-time on the other side.
Cottie Burland: I often think about David Bohm’s and Krishnamurti’s conversation on the ending of time, which seemed to circle around that malleability of time and space. I think about Derrida too with his space-time arguments, but that was more of a language thing, a kind of theory. He even defended ghosts as theoreticalfigures. But that’s not enough, is it? He must be painfully aware now that he curtailed his own future existence, even as he proclaimed, “Long live the ghosts”.
ACT ONE, Scene 3
Nighttime in Room 62, Egyptian Mummy galleries, The British Museum, London. White-walled 19thcentury room with high ceilings, featuring oversized modern display cases holding mummies and various objects associated with funerary practices, arranged vertically and horizontally. Low-level lighting emanates from within display cases for nocturnal surveillance purposes.
Katebet(EA 6665): Egyptian mummy from Thebes, wrapped. Female of advanced age. 19thDynasty, c. 1300-1280 BC. Acquired 1835. Purchase from the Henry Salt Collection.
Tayesmutengebtiu (EA 22939):Egyptian mummy in cartonnage from Thebes. Female, mid 30s. 22ndDynasty, c. 900 BC. Acquired 1891. Purchase from the collection of the French consul Raymond Sabatier.
Takhebkhenem(EA6692): Egyptian mummy from Thebes, wrapped. Female, age unknown. 25thDynasty. Purchased by Alexander Turnbull Christie from Giovanni d’Athanasi in 1832. Acquired by the British Museum in 1835.
Time: Present Day
Tayesmutengebtiu (EA 22939):I am no more than a stick doll, a pole of bones wrapped in bandages. Layer upon layer, bereft of which I have almost no flesh. So lacking in substance that my box is more true to life form. What is it that they seek, pressing nostrils to glass? I was not meant to be seen in the light. Nor your glimmer of gold.
Katebet (EA 6665):Fellow Chantress of Amun, our ancestors hid us in shadows. Darkness causes us no discontent. The unseen for them does not exist. They drive out the shadows for they cannot allow their thoughts to travel to what they cannot see.
Tayesmutengebtiu (EA 22939): Know they not thatthe boats of the dead travel on the same river as the boats of the living? That life and death are as tightly tied as the double-looped girdle of Aset?
Katebet (EA 6665):Nay Tamut! They have watched their deadgo west like the setting Sun but not stayed in the dark to see them rise in the east like the Dawn. They know not the glimpse of gold in the flicker of an oil lamp.
Tayesmutengebtiu (EA 22939): What use then their staring eyes, the light of their picture boxes? This all for naught?
Takhebkhenem (EA6692):Grieve not Tamut! We know death’s beauty departs when lights burn brightly. Yet methinks they know not where else to touch it, but in our midst.
Tayesmutengebtiu (EA 22939): You are wise of heart, Takhem, but I do not belong to them. I belong to the Temple of Apollo. [Starts to sing quietly to herself.]