The Nebula Awards event which Terry and I recently attended also offered tours of the Computer History Museum and the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum. I chose the latter. Growing up in northern California I had heard about this museum. I had always assumed it would be vaguely campy, filled with Rosicrucian mysticism and quasi-historical replicas.
To my surprise, it is an elegant Egyptian museum with genuine artifacts. San Jose’s Rosicrucian Park and museum were founded in 1928 by H. Spencer Lewis, an explorer and mystic who was very interested in bringing the Rosicrucian movement back to the United States. Since the order funded expeditions at the turn of the twentieth century, they acquired many artifacts. I’m sure the panelists on the “Writing the Other” panel would have a few things to say about that.
The San Jose Museum has the largest collection of artifacts west of the Mississippi river, including a couple of human mummies. I was amazed how many animals were mummified to be included in tombs — and how “quick and dirty” some of those mummifications were (like dipping falcon corpses in a pitch mixture). The baboon mummy was poignant, reminding me of my tendency to anthropomorphize everything. Apparently, I’m not the only one with that impulse.
Rebecca, our docent, gave us a tour of the replica tomb that is carved out underneath the museum. Rebecca was well-prepared as a tour guide with a nice sense of humor. The Egyptians took seventy days to embalm a body, which meant seventy days was just how much time the artisans had to paint the life story of the deceased on the walls of the tomb. She also told us that the odd arm positions and stances of the deceased (always in profile) were chosen so that every aspect of the body would be transferred into the afterlife. How embarrassing if an important appendage was missing because the artist didn’t show it!
The museum permits and even encourages photography as long as no flash is used, because the UV light from the flash can damage some of the more fragile artifacts.
The other galleries are devoted to daily life in Egypt; one to Sekhmet and one to the monotheist Pharaoh Akhenaten. Rebecca was particularly proud of a period statue of Cleopatra – yes, that Cleopatra. She is shown in a traditional Egyptian pose but the Roman influence is still plain. My favorite artifact was a shallow stone disc, the size of the palm of my hand, filled with holes. It looked like a small colander; in fact, it was a beer strainer. Egyptian beer was so thick… er, full-bodied, that it needed to be strained before it was drunk.
For anyone in the San Francisco Bay Area or planning a trip here, the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum is a
worthwhile day trip in its own right. For anyone planning to write Egypt-based fantasy, this is a valuable resource. I think I need another trip, just to take everything in.
As a bonus, before we got into the limo, Rachel Swirsky’s husband gave us an excellent impression of a meerkat.