Summoning the Mummy
The Peregrinations of Tasenetnethor (And Other Impractical Words)
Sean Patrick Traver
Last January a mummy hunt took me to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I knew they had a mummy in their collection; I remembered seeing her on school field trips when I was a kid, and many times in passing since. But I’d never paid much attention, and now I wanted to know more. Who was this person? How had she lived? How had she died? Where had she been?
Well, she was a woman, as it turns out, and a musician, nearly three thousand years ago. A card in her display case identified her as Ta-senet-net-hor, the Sistrum Player of Amun-Re. And I was delighted to make her acquaintance.
See, I’d had a vague story notion lurking at the edges of my thoughts for a few years by then, about a casual conversation between mismatched ghosts with long memories. I was envisioning a My Dinner With Andre-type piece, a casual-yet-intellectual conversation, rooted in those hypothetical games about which historical figures it might be fun to sit down to dinner with, in your afterlife of choice. But the idea never went any further than that, because I didn’t have anything more. All I knew for certain was that I wanted one of my ghosts to represent a millennial perspective. Not a college-age kid’s perspective, but much the opposite—that of someone who’d walked the streets of ancient cities and borne witness to the erasure of empires. A point of view informed by the passing of many centuries, adrift on a lonely ocean of time. It occurred to me that a mummy in a museum might lend that viewpoint, so I went out to see who I might find in local collections.
Stories seem to come together for different writers in different ways, but for me they grow from seeds. Idea-seeds—persistent images of kernel-sized notions about characters and situations that take root in my imagination and sometimes grow, if I tend to them well. Tasenetnethor seems to have been one of these, as story sprouted as soon as she came into contact with the ground I’d already partially prepared. Companions for her sprang to mind and started talking. A villain even cropped up, demanding his own lines and scenes and finally turning the conversation from a weird vignette into a full-featured story.
But Tasenetnethor was also a real person. Her mummy has been on display at LACMA since 1974, on long-term loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She was unearthed outside of Thebes sometime in the 1830s, by a nearly-forgotten explorer named Robert Hay, and buried there during the reign of Sheshonq the First, founder of Egypt’s 22nd Dynasty. Her mummy was damaged by tomb robbers in antiquity, repaired by conservators in the 1970s, and CT scanned during the 1980s. ‘Sistrum Player’ was a common title during her lifetime, indicating that she served as a temple dancer. A sistrum is a simple musical instrument, something like a tambourine with a handle. It looks like an ankh crossed with a tennis racket. Tasenetnethor was probably part of a chorus of performers, like a backup dancer today (only with a more ecclesiastical bent). An unassuming, middle-class mummy, neither a leader nor a laborer. Here in LA, I imagined she might enjoy watching game shows and soap operas being taped at the CBS TV facility up the street from her museum, or hanging out amidst the comedians and musicians who eat at Canter’s deli in the middle of the night. I think she’d find their drama and chatter comfortingly familiar.
Tasenetnethor has also seen me from time to time, over several decades, if her ghost pays any attention to her gallery’s visitors. First as an 80s-era schoolkid who rolled up in a teeming yellow bus; then as a teenager on stolen Ferris Bueller afternoons; and more recently as a novelist, a writer seeking inspiration amidst artifacts of the past.
As I write this she’s no longer on display, for the first time in a while. The museum’s entire Egyptian collection has recently been packed up and moved into storage in anticipation of a total teardown of LACMA’s core buildings, first erected in the mid-1960s. In fact Tasenetnethor was removed from view just weeks before my novella about her (Wraith Ladies Who Lunch) was released. I knew those big plans to remodel the museum were in the works, but the timing still caught me off-guard, and initially I was crushed. Tasenetnethor is someone I’ve gotten to know, a personal touchstone as well as an artwork I’d hoped readers of my story would be able to visit. I wish I could go see her again myself.
Now that I can’t, I wonder if she understood the museum’s timeframe better than I did. She’s been my hometown mummy for forty-three years—very nearly my entire life. And she joined my story idea with just enough time to see it realized before she was due to be mothballed. If I’d waited much longer to start I might have missed her.
Could it be that she wanted a story told? Something written down to mark her time as LACMA’s link to the ancient world? Did she choose me for the task? I hope so. I like to think so. I brought my whole heart and all my best skills to bear on the book I wrote, and I hope I did right by her. In my narrative she’s careful with the living people she encounters, implanting ideas and engendering feelings rather than revealing herself fully, in order to protect their fragile philosophies. So my experience of swift inspiration is exactly how my character would choose to make her desires known, if this were a plot point in the tale. I like the idea that my fictional ghost story might have just a bit of real ghost story wrapped around it.
The last time I saw Tasenetnethor was in August, on the museum’s free admission day. Which meant the often-quiet galleries were unusually packed, with students making pencil sketches of their favorite pieces and folks from local office buildings taking long lunch breaks, and many multiple clusters of unruly kids. I had exactly one galley copy of Wraith Ladies Who Lunch in my possession at that point. I spent a long time in the Egyptian gallery that afternoon, watching the way visitors related to the mummy. How they’d pause to reconsider what they were seeing after reading the words ‘coffin, cartonnage, and human remains’ in the display’s short description. Her memento mori presence startles people into paying a different sort of attention, to themselves and to their surroundings. I felt like I was seeing them the way she might. My own perspective had changed for writing about the place.
I’m glad I didn’t know then that it would be the last time I’d experience the museum as I grew up with it. An email alert not long after that visit let me know the gallery had already closed. Art of the Ancient World was the first thing to go. Tasenetnethor may yet be back, when the new building opens (and she might be on temporary display starting in March of 2018, at the Vincent Price Art Museum on the campus of East Los Angeles Community College, along with the rest of the Egyptian collection). I hope that comes to pass. I’ll be there to visit as soon as she’s made public again. But the three structures that have always defined LACMA are going. That hushed maze lined with lurid medieval martyrs and thoughtful portrait gazes. The halls Steve Martin roller-skated down in LA Story. The place where I found inspiration for a book I’ll always be proud of, and have as a time-capsule snapshot of a part of this city that has mattered to me.
The face of Los Angeles changes so fast. To a millennial ghost we must seem to careen through our lives like we’re trying to win a race, only to find ourselves ambivalent about our prizes when we come to the end.
I hope I’ll see Tasenetnethor in March, and again when the permanent collection’s new home is completed, in 2023. I hope the new museum will still feel like home, despite the enormous alterations on their drawing board. I’d like to write another story about LACMA’s mummy, to catch up with her down the road and see what she makes of all this frenetic change. I’m not yet sure what I make of it myself. So I expect we’ll have a lot to talk about.
~Sean Patrick Traver, Amanuensis of Tasenetnethor