“A Museum is a dangerous place”: The Fragment of Mummy Shroud in the Hagen History Center

By Sarah Bahm ’24, Art History Major

Over the summer of 2023, I worked as a Collections Intern at the Hagen History Center in Erie, Pennsylvania. As both an art history major and a native Erieite, this internship was an incredible opportunity. Throughout my time at the Hagen History Center, I worked on many projects, including researching a series of twelve portraits in the historic Watson-Curtze Mansion, providing tours of exhibitions, and assisting with the planning of multiple events. Most often though, my time was spent in the archives with my fellow interns, researching, writing, and organizing.

Figure 1. Hagen History Center. Source: Hagen History Center website.
Figure 1. Hagen History Center. Source: Hagen History Center website.

One day, I was browsing the museum database (PastPerfect) and stumbled across an object that immediately caught my attention. It was part of the Archaeology collection. As a local museum, the Hagen History Center (est. 1898 as the Erie Public Museum) is responsible for the acquisition and preservation of objects, documents, and artworks relating to the history of Erie County. Upon first inspection, this object seemed to have no connection to Erie. It was from a place separated from Erie by thousands of miles — Egypt. The object in question here is a small, framed piece of textile. The exact material is not listed, but most likely this fragment is made from linen. According to the accompanying text, the textile is part of the covering of an Egyptian mummy. I immediately assigned myself the project of researching the object’s provenance (don’t worry, I also got permission from my boss).

Figure 2. Framed Mummy Shroud. Courtesy of the author.
Figure 2. Framed Mummy Shroud. Courtesy of the author.

Provenance is the study of an object’s ownership; that is, how it has passed from one person’s hands to another. Provenance studies have become increasingly important in recent years as museums make efforts to research the forgotten or unspoken origins of their objects and hopefully, make efforts to reckon with their discoveries. For this blog post, I traced the provenance of this object as far as my research would take me.

Our story begins in 1865, when New York state senator Andrew Dickson White, along with the inventor Ezra Cornell, founded a nonsectarian institution — Cornell University. White served as the first president of the university until 1885, hiring faculty, making educational advancements, and developing the collection of the rare books library. According to Cornell’s Department of Anthropology webpage, the building of a university museum was especially important to White and Cornell during the early years, reporting “[the museum]…was an integral part of Cornell’s vision of ‘an institution where any person could find instruction in study.’” As a result, White set about finding objects — and human remains — to fill the museum.

Figure 3. Andrew Dickson White. Source: Cornell University website.
Figure 3. Andrew Dickson White. Source: Cornell University website.

The events that transpired in 1883 are somewhat fuzzy. According to a New York Times article from 1884 entitled “An Egyptian Mummy for Cornell,” White communicated with George Potwin Pomeroy, the United States Consul-General in Cairo, Egypt. Pomeroy was serving as an ambassador at the time when Egypt was a part of the Ottoman Empire, although Britain had colonized the country in 1882. “The Egyptian mummy secured for Cornell University by [Pomeroy],” the article states, “would leave Cairo for Liverpool en route to this country at once.” Along with a letter from Pomeroy to White, the correspondence also included a report about the mummy’s identity from another man — Emile Brugsch — who had acted as the middleman between the foreign collector (White) and the Cairo-based dealer (Pomeroy). He identifies the mummified man as Peupi, who was exhumed from the Necropolis of Thebes. Brugsch goes on to describe the decoration and inscription on the pasteboard.

Figure 4. Emile Brugsch and archaeologists. Source: In Scripture Lands by Edward Wilson (1895).
Figure 4. Emile Brugsch and archaeologists. Source: In Scripture Lands by Edward Wilson (1895).

Emile Brugsch was a German Egyptologist, who was director at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in 1883. He had previously been the assistant curator of the Boulaq Museum in Luxor, Egypt. Despite these credentials, Brugsch was a man with a bad reputation, even at the time. The following anecdote demonstrates the reputation of Brugsch among his contemporaries.

When the British archaeologist Flinders Petrie, who worked alongside Emile Brugsch, discovered a mummified arm in the tomb of Djer, he brought the remains to Brugsch at the Egyptian Museum. Petrie later wrote about their interaction in his journal, “The arm – the oldest mummified piece known – and its marvelously fine tissue of linen were … delivered to the museum. Emile Brugsch only cared for display; so, from one bracelet he cut away the half that was of plaited gold wire, and he also threw away the arm and linen. A museum is a dangerous place…” This was the man who facilitated the deal between White and Pomeroy.

Figure 5. Photographs, for sale, taken by Emile Brugsch. Source: Invaluable.com.
Figure 5. Photographs, for sale, taken by Emile Brugsch. Source: Invaluable.com.

After the correspondence between White, Pomeroy, and Brugsch in 1883, it is clear that the mummy was indeed transported to Cornell University, based upon the artifact in question at the Hagen History Center. In the accompanying information framed alongside the fabric, it reads, “This specimen was taken from the covering of a mummy preserved in the museum at Cornell University, N.Y., and which was taken from the Acropolis at Thebes, Egypt, in 1883.” While the dates match thus far, it is uncertain whether the find spot recorded (the Acropolis at Thebes) is accurate. The label continues, “The mummy, being the remains of a prominent man who probably lived in XXIII Dynasty, about 800 years before Christ…” Here the author of this blurb — I’ll get to him in a moment — continues to compare the age of the mummy to other historical figures for at least four more lines.

He expounds, “About 800 years before Christ. About fifty years before the founding of Rome; a contemporary of Lycurgus; about the times of the prophets Elijah and Elisha; 200 years before the fall of Ninevah; 300 years before Confucius; 500 years before Alexander the Great.” Finally, he concludes, “The mummy was presented to President Andrew White of Cornell University (at present United States Ambassador to Germany) by the Hon. C.P. Pomeroy, the American Consul at Cairo, in Dec. 1883. The specimen was obtained from a fellow student in 1885, who aided in taking the mummy from its original case at Cornell University.”

The note is dated and signed from March 1902: “Loaned by Chas. L. Heisler.” There is a lot to unpack here. From the surface, Heisler’s note matches what my research turned up…if with some embellishment and vague language. My main problem with this information is Heisler’s usage of the word “taken.” Three times he refers to the mummy being taken: first, to refer to this scrap of fabric being removed from the covering of the mummy, then, to refer to the taking of the mummy from Thebes, and finally in reference to the unnamed student at Cornell who removed the specimen (does he mean mummy? The scrap of fabric?) from the “case.” It’s unclear what Heisler means, whether he simply means the student was gifted this piece of shroud, which he then gave to his friend, or whether Heisler is implying that the other student stole the piece of fabric and then gave it to him.

But who was Heisler, the man who loaned the fragment of fabric to the museum? In a story filled with characters, let’s add Charles L. Heisler, inventor of the Heisler Geared Locomotive, to the list. A mechanical engineering genius, Heisler attended Cornell University during the 1880s. Shortly after graduating, Heisler’s design for a lumber locomotive, entirely different from previous American and British models, began to attract the attention of wealthy investors. One of these wealthy investors was Mr. Felix F. Curtze of Erie, Pennsylvania. The investment of Mr. Curtze suggests an answer to the main question of my research during the summer internship: Why does Hagen History Center currently own this object? (Actually, I should note here that the HHC does not actually own the mummy fragment — technically, it is still on loan to the center because, presumably, Heisler died having forgotten he had loaned the object to the museum). According to my research in the HHC archives, Curtze funded Heisler Locomotive Works out of his own pocket. This relationship of donor and inventor no doubt resulted in a friendship between the two men.

Figure 6. Heisler locomotive. Source: Southeastern Railway Museum website.
Figure 6. Heisler locomotive. Source: Southeastern Railway Museum website.

Now we can piece the story together: In 1883, Andrew Dickson White, the first president of Cornell University, communicated with Charles Pomeroy Stone, the Consul-General in Cairo. Through the untrustworthy Egyptologist and middleman Emile Brugsch, a mummy was gifted by White and shipped to Cornell University sometime around the year 1884. Then, according to locomotive engineer Charles L. Heisler, in 1885 a “fellow student” at Cornell assisted in “taking the mummy from the original case” and took a piece of the shroud wrapped around the body of the mummy. At an unknown point between 1885 and 1902, that unnamed student passed on the piece of fabric to Charles L. Heisler. Finally, in 1902, Heisler loaned the fragment of shroud — along with his note — to either the Erie Public Museum directly or to Mr. Curtze, the benefactor who made his locomotive company a reality, who later gave it to the museum (today, a significant part of the HHC is the Watson-Curtze Mansion, which Felix F. Curtze inhabited from 1923–1941). This, finally, is the fullest version of provenance I can uncover.

I have found myself wondering where Peupi/Penpi, the mummy, is now. Until recently, I had been unable to find any mention of the mummy on Cornell’s website. However, on the anthropology collections page, I came across a mention. It says, “The mummy of Penpi, a scribe of Thebes in the Third Intermediate Period (c. 828-625 B.C.E.), was donated in 1884 by the American Consul in Cairo. The body of Penpi is maintained in secure storage to rest undisturbed, but his sarcophagus is on display.”

Though mentions of Penpi are scarce on Cornell’s website today, students and faculty were clearly excited about the mummy’s arrival during the 1880s. By digging through archives of the Cornell Daily Sun and The Cornellian — collegiate newspapers dating back to the 1800s — I have found many references to the mummy as a new addition to the university museum.

Figure 7. Cornell Daily Sun masthead. Source: Cornell University library digital archive.
Figure 7. Cornell Daily Sun masthead. Source: Cornell University library digital archive.

Most notably, according to an article from the Daily Sun from June 4, 1884, there was a special “unwrapping ceremony” following the arrival of the mummy. “At three-o-clock yesterday afternoon,” the article reports, “a limited number of invited spectators assembled in the anatomical lecture room to witness the ceremony of unwrapping the Egyptian mummy.” After a professor spoke about the age of the mummy and the technicalities of the embalming process, the unwrapping commenced. The description of this process is as follows:

“The case had been sawed transversely through the middle and everything was in readiness. After its removal the body was found to be enveloped in a dark red shroud. Beneath this were the linen bandages in strips about four inches wide, wound closely and neatly about the body. Some time was occupied in removing these, during which the audience sat in a state of eager expectancy awaiting the exposure of the head and shoulders. When brought to light the features were found in a rather poor state of preservation, even for a mummy. A stubby beard upon the chin was the principal object of interest and was feelingly touched by most of those present as they passed by. After the unwrapping was completed it was found that the body measured five feet six inches in length and was thus somewhat above the average height. The viscera which had been removed were wrapped separately, and had been packed between the limbs of the mummy. A number of beetles were found in the folds of the bandages which upon inspection proved to be of recent origin. The body with its wrappings and case will be at once placed on exhibition in the large hall of the museum where they may be seen today.”

Poorly preserved, infested by beetles, this is the mummy from which a small piece of cloth was taken. This anecdote recorded in the Cornell Daily Sun — astounding as it sounds to us today — was typical of the Egyptomania that swept through late-nineteenth century parlors. Though Penpi is no longer on display today, the Cornell “unwrapping party” of 1884 can only be described as a spectacle.

Another, much shorter article from the Daily Sun answers one more question tugging at my mind: How did the unnamed student get his or her hands on a piece of the mummy’s shroud in the first place? On the 17th of June, the Daily Sun reported, “A large number of students and others have applied at the Business Office for pieces of the mummy cloth. It is amusing to see how daintily the lady students carry them away.” The answer seems to be that the university gave (or sold) pieces of the cloth to students and staff! Perhaps when Charles Heisler wrote of the unnamed student “taking” the piece of cloth, he meant to embellish the act of simply applying at the business office for a fragment of fabric.

The story of this small square of shroud is not to be underestimated. In order to end up in the local Erie history museum, a mummy travelled from Egypt to Liverpool to upstate New York through the hands of the first president of Cornell University, the Consul-General of British-occupied Egypt, an untrustworthy Egyptophile middleman, and the brilliant inventor of American locomotives.

With this story I aim to propose questions about ownership, belonging, and provenance more broadly. The fragment of shroud in the Hagen History Center was originally a loan from Charles L. Heisler, most likely to the Erie Public Museum or Felix F. Curtze. It is not exactly the kind of work that can be returned or repatriated. But it asks questions. What happened to the mummy at Cornell? How many people have pieces of his shroud? In destroying and dispersing the pieces of his shroud so broadly, what historical context has been lost about this Penpi? What should the HHC do with their fragment? If one tiny square of linen has such a complicated, muddled history of collecting, what about the objects in world-class museums in countries that have benefitted from decades of colonial power? There is always a story behind an object, just waiting to be discovered and remembered.

Works Cited

“An Egyptian Mummy for Cornell.” The New York Times, 26 January 1884. Accessed October 13, 2023. https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1884/01/26/106139313.html?pageNumber=5.

Cornell University, Office of Web Communications. “Andrew Dickson White | Office of the President | Cornell University.” Cornell University website. Accessed August 1, 2023. https://president.cornell.edu/the-presidency/andrew-dickson-white/.

Department of Anthropology. “Anthropology Collections.” Cornell University website. Accessed August 1, 2023. https://anthropology.cornell.edu/anthropology-collections.

“Émile Charles Adalbert Brugsch.” Our Dark Materials: Rediscovering an Egyptian Collection. Accessed August 1, 2023. https://scalar.usc.edu/works/our-dark-materials/brugsch.

“Heisler Campbell Limestone #9.” Southeastern Railway Museum (blog), 27 November 2018. Accessed August 1, 2023. https://www.train-museum.org/locomotives-rolling-stock/locomotives/heisler-campbell-limestone-9/.

Murphy, Kim. “Mummies: The Prized Remains of Egyptian Pharoahs Will Return to Public Display in Cairo, Aided by the Getty Institute.” Los Angeles Times, 18 January 1994. Accessed October 15, 2023.

“Sunbeams.” The Cornell Daily Sun, 4 June 1884. Accessed August 2, 2023. https://cdsun.library.cornell.edu/?a=d&d=CDS18840604.2.6&srpos=1&dliv=none&e=——188-en-20–1–txt-txIN-Mummy——.

“Sunbeams.” The Cornell Daily Sun, 17 June 1884. Accessed October 15, 2023. https://cdsun.library.cornell.edu/?a=d&d=CDS18840617.2.8&srpos=8&e=——188-en-20–1–txt-txIN-Mummy——.

“The Heisler Geared Locomotive.” Railway Wonders of the World. Accessed August 1, 2023. https://www.railwaywondersoftheworld.com/heisler_locomotive.html.

Tyldesley, Joyce A. Egypt: How a Lost Civilization Was Rediscovered. London: BBC Books, 2005, pg. 162. https://archive.org/details/egypthowlostcivi0000tyld/page/162/mode/2up.

“Unwrapping of the Mummy.” The Cornell Daily Sun, 4 June 1884. Accessed August 2, 2023. https://cdsun.library.cornell.edu/?a=d&d=CDS18840604.2.2&dliv=none&st=1&e=——188-en-20–1–txt-txIN-Mummy——.