Ancient Egypt has long been of great fascination to the world, capturing the imaginations of everyone from the Greeks who conquered Egypt in 332 BC, all the way to people of our own time. Much of the ancient civilization’s culture is preserved in the monumental temples and pyramids, the cryptic hieroglyphics, and of course in the elaborate burials and mummifications that became the hallmark of Egypt. While the interest in Ancient Egypt continues on, it was perhaps at its most fervent in the Victorian era. Discoveries such as the Rosetta Stone by the French in 1799 made it possible for scholars to finally translate the hieroglyphics that had stumped them for centuries, and created an intense interest in this formerly mysterious culture.
It was with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone that the discipline of Egyptology was born. The publication of the essay Description de l’Égypte (1809-1829) officially made the study an academic discipline. Soon, historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists alike flocked to Egypt to excavate the tombs and study what was inscribed on the walls of its temples and other landmarks. Many of these excavations yielded crypts of pharaohs richly adorned with gold, jewels, and mummies, many of which were taken back to Europe to be put on display in museums. The people of the Victorian age came in droves to see these mummies, which both delighted and terrified them. There were even mummy unwrapping parties, which guests could attend and watch as the linen wrappings were peeled back to reveal the embalmed body inside. When Poe was fourteen, there was even a mummy on public display in the Senate Chamber of the Capitol in Richmond.
An Invitation to a Mummy Unwrapping Party
Poe wrote a satirical critique of this fascination with mummies entitled “Some Words With a Mummy” (published in 1845). The story is a commentary on the treatment of the artifacts of Ancient Egypt, particularly the mummies. Once back in Europe, many mummies were damaged or destroyed in the name of science by dissections and examinations, and others were stolen from their tombs by grave robbers to be ground into a powder which was thought to have medicinal properties. Poe’s mummy, Allamistakeo, admonishes his examiners on their treatment of him, showing the author’s view on the Egypt Mania and the disrespect of the tombs that had overtaken the Victorian era.
At the same time as the publication of “Some Words With a Mummy”, the Egyptian Building was being constructed to house the Medical College of Virginia here in Richmond. Designed by architect Thomas W. Stewart, the building is in the Egyptian Revival style and brings to mind the colossal temples that dot the Nile Valley. The choice to make the building very Egyptian in appearance may coincide with the Egypt Mania of the time, or perhaps ally the medical campus with Imhotep, the Egyptian priest who is thought to have been the first physician. The building became a national landmark in 1969, and is a treasured part of the MCV campus today. It has been in continual use since 1845, and houses an auditorium and classrooms.
The MCV Egyptian Building
Hear tomorrow’s great writers read their latest work. The Poe Museum will host a public reading by the participants in this year’s Edgar Allan Poe Young Writers’ Conference on Friday, June 22 from 7 to 8:30 P.M. This year, the conference accepted nine high school students from seven different states into a week-long intensive writing program for promising young writers. During the conference, the students are challenged to produce a work that can be read at the week-end public reading. Each day of the conference, attendees will have an opportunity to learn more about American writers Edgar Allan Poe by visiting the places he lived and worked or by taking special tours of prominent collections of Poe artifacts.
Directed by Edgar™ Award-winning author and Edgar Allan Poe cousin Dr. Harry Lee Poe, this exclusive conference is now entering its fifth year and has so far attracted students from across the country to spend a week learning the craft of writing from a variety of profession writers and editors. This year’s applicants hail from Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Wisconsin, and Virginia.
Admission to the reading and reception is free. Join us in supporting tomorrow’s great writers today.
The Poe Museum celebrated its second Unhappy Hour of the season by putting the spotlight on “Berenice”, Poe’s 1835 tale of love, obsession and dentistry.
Amber Boice as Berenice and Ryan Lee as Egaeus
The evenings festivities centered around a dramatic performance of the tale produced in cooperation with Haunts of Richmond and we were honored that Jeff Jerome of the Baltimore Poe House & Museum came down to see us and even graced each performance of the story with an informative introduction.
Poe curators – Chris Semtner of the Richmond Poe Museum and Jeff Jerome of the Baltimore Poe House – posing outside the Old Stone House
Jeff Jerome getting into the spirit of the event with our “Berenice” actors
Richmond’s own Ethio-Jazz and World Groove powerhouse, Rattlemouth provided the evening’s musical accompaniment and their performance was much enjoyed by our guests.
Various shots of Rattlemouth in action
Museum docent, Jessy Mullins educated and horrified guests with a brief presentation about 19th century dental practices and folks enjoyed wandering through our exhibits and taking in the ambience of the Enchanted Garden throughout the evening (despite there being a bit of rain).
Jessy grossing people out about 19th century dentistry
Unhappy Hour atmosphere
It was a splendid evening full of bite and was enjoyed by all!
Box o’ teeth used in the performance
As always, you can see more photos from the event (or share some of your own) by paying a visit to the Poe Museum’s flickr group.
Videos will be appearing on the museum’s Youtube channel soon as well, so keep an eye out!
Thanks to all who helped to make our May Unhappy Hour such a success!
Don’t forget to mark your calendars for our NEXT Unhappy Hour, which is coming up on June 28th, 2012 and will be themed around “The Oval Portrait”. This 1842 tale by Poe inspired Oscar Wilde to write The Picture of Dorian Gray and the event should make an indelible impression on all who attend.
An interview with Richmond Macabre editors Phil Ford and Beth Brown was aired today at noon on WRIR’s Wordy Birds radio show. If you missed it, you can listen at:
Listen for the references to Poe and the Museum!
Richmond Macabre is a short fiction anthology featuring 15 horror stories set in Richmond, Virginia.
Richmond Macabre will be released tomorrow, October 1st. The Poe Museum will be hosting a launch party October 2nd from 2 p.m. until 4 p.m. Authors will be giving readings of excerpts from the book and will be on hand to give signings. DJ Sean Lovelace will be providing spooky music, as well as an interactive experience with a Theramin for party guests. The Museum’s exhibits will be open, including new exhibits featuring mourning customs during Edgar Allan Poe’s lifetime and an art gallery containing pieces inspired by The Raven. Light refreshments will be served.
Copies of Richmond Macabre will be available for $19.95. Posters of Richmond artist Noah Scalin’s cover art will be available for $20.00. Admission to this event is free.
On Thursday, August 25 from 6-9 P.M. the Poe Museum will pay tribute to Poe’s thrilling adventure tale “A Descent into the Maelstrom” with an evening of sea shanties by renowned folk singer Bob Zentz as well as exhibits, games, and refreshments. Admission is free, but donations are accepted. A cash bar will be available.
“A Descent into the Maelstrom” is the story of a sailor whose ship is trapped in a giant whirlpool. The story was first printed in the May 1841 issue of Grahams Magazine, the same publication that had published “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” a month earlier. At the time of its publication, a reviewer for the Aristidean wrote the story was “noted for the boldness of its subject–a subject never dreamed of before…” Poe’s story was so realistic that some readers thought it was a true story, and a passage from the story was reprinted as fact in the ninth edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. The story was reprinted in Poe’s 1845 collection Tales of Edgar A. Poe. By the next year it had been translated into French and German. It remains one of Poe’s most popular tales and has been compared with both his detective stories and his science fiction. In 1869, Jules Verne, a devotee of Poe’s works, included the Maelstrom in his novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by having Captain Nemo attempt suicide by sending his submarine into the whirlpool.
Here are some photos of some friends of the Poe Museum portraying Fortunato and Monstressor from “The Cask of Amontillado” at CultureWorks’s Cultsha Xpo in June. On July 28, the Poe Museum will host an evening inspired by Poe’s classic tale. If you haven’t read “The Cask of Amontillado,” check it out at http://www.poemuseum.org/works-cask.php.
Some of Poe’s most popular tales of terror were inspired by true events. One example is “The Pit and the Pendulum,” which tells of the story of a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition, an infamous program of trials in which the judges were allowed to use torture to extract confessions from the accused. Poe sets this story in a torture chamber during the Spanish Inquisition. He may have been inspired by a paragraph in Thomas Dick’s Philosophy of Religion (1825): “On entry of the French into Toldeo during the late Peninsular War, General Lasalle visited the Palace of the Inquisition. The great number of instruments of torture, especially the instruments to stretch the limbs, and the drop baths, which cause a lingering death, excited horror, even in the minds of soldiers hardened in the field of battle.” Poe’s story ends with Lasalle entering the Palace of the Inquisition and rescuing one of the prisoners. Poe imagines a series of terrifying events leading up to that conclusion.
In composing his story, Poe describes tortures that differ from those actually used by the Inquisition. In one room, for example, the victim is placed in a dark room with a seemingly bottomless pit and burning walls that close in on him. In another room, the man is tied to a table over which a sharp blade swings, gradually lowering until it almost chops him in half. Through a combination of luck and intelligence, the prisoner is able to narrowly escape each challenge set before him.
After the French invasion of Spain in 1808, Joseph Bonaparte briefly suppressed the Inquisition and appointed Llorente to take over the Inquisitions archives and to write its history. This work was published in 1812. When the Spanish drove out the French, Llorente moved to Paris where he issued a French translation of his history of the Inquisition. By 1826, two English translations were published. Any of these could have been Poe’s sources for research while writing “The Pit and the Pendulum.” The Spanish Inquisition finally ended in 1834, just eight years before Poe wrote his story, so reports of the terrors of that time would still have been fresh in the minds of the public.
The Poe Museum’s new exhibit, “The Pit and the Pendulum: Fact and Fiction,” recreates a scene from Poe’s story and brings together a rare first printing of the tale, illustrations by Harry Clarke, Mark Summers, and others, as well as translations of the work into other languages.
The show runs until August 30 in the Poe Museum’s Exhibits Building.