Monday, 6 October 2014

CURSED OR MISUNDERSTOOD? THE NEB-SENU STATUE

MUSEUM MYSTERIES

BY: MADELINE SMOLARZ

One of the most recent “museum mysteries” that captured the attention of the public and quickly became a favourite of mine emerged roughly a year ago from within the Manchester Museum located in bustling Manchester, England.

The facade of the Manchester Museum lit up from the inside at dusk.
This photo of the Manchester Museum was chosen solely because it exudes an air of mystery. Source.

Early in 2013, museum staff began to notice that a certain 4,000 year-old statue in one of the display cases of their Egyptian collection was moving – very slowly and undetectable to the gaze of a regular viewer simply standing and watching for a few minutes – but moving nonetheless. Within a couple days of adjusting the statue, known as Neb-Senu, employees would find it with its back facing visitors or sitting at an odd angle in comparison to its former position. The artefact was evidently rotating on its own axis amongst its stationary peers in the museum.

View of a glass display case in a museum where one small anthropomotphic object has its back to the viewer.
One of the many positions that Manchester Museum staff found Neb-Senu in. Source.

Neb-Senu is a relatively small, anthropomorphic statue carved from dark stone that was made to be a medium for the soul of an Ancient Egyptian man who died c. 1800 BCE. The press’ discovery of this juicy tidbit led to newspaper stories with headlines containing words like “cursed” and “possessed.”

A close-up view of the torso and face of an Egyptian statue made in the likeness of a man.
Close-up of the Neb-Senu statue. Source.

Due to the never-ending curiosity of humans (and probably also the annoyance of constantly having to straighten the rebellious object), it was determined that someone should be enlisted to solve the mystery. The British television show “Mystery Map” brought in several experts and produced a time lapse film of the statue over several days to chart its movement.

When viewing the video below, note which artefact is Neb-Senu (highlighted here). Source
Time lapse video of Neb-Senu spinning around in its case. Source.

The most helpful expert turned out to be engineer Steve Gosling, a vibration specialist. He determined that the daytime foot traffic of people both inside and outside of the museum, the flow of vehicular traffic outdoors, the relatively small size of the moving object, and the convex (rounded) base of the statue all in combination produced the rotating movement. The other artefacts all had flat bases, so Neb-Senu was the only one that reacted to the vibrations in its environment during the day when they are at their peak.

Since this discovery, appropriate measures have been taken to stabilize the statue’s base with conservation-grade foam, a nice dovetail with the subject matter of the other Musings column I write, Conservation Tips and Tricks.

For me, this case speaks to the inability of our society’s psyche to cease thinking about Ancient Egypt as shadowy, superstitious, source of the unexplained. Fear not, folks. Just because something cannot be initially explained doesn’t mean you should jump to conclusions. Of course, the sensationalizing of the story died down after the mystery was solved, but the large number of articles that I was able to find on this topic tells me that this story will be sticking around in the public’s mind for a while. I leave you with this adorable parody of the incident from the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture.



3 comments:

  1. Wonderful topic Madeline! Apparently the ROM has had similar problems with their collections, especially with the new subway trains (I'm not sure why THESE particular cars produce more vibrations - but that's what I heard). Conservation concerns (and solutions) aside, I'm interested in the potential for media attention. I would be very interested to see if the Manchester Museum's attendance increased during the time when the media deemed the item "cursed." Everyone loves a good ghost story afterall. Either way, this is a good story, and as you said a good example of not always jumping to conclusions.

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    2. Thank you for the much-appreciated positive feedback, Meaghan! I did a bit of digging and found that visitor numbers increased by the hundreds, especially when the news first hit media outlets.
      (http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/moving-statue-sets-turnstiles-spinning-4710126)
      This definitely demonstrates one pro of sharing these happenings with the public instead of keeping them quiet, but superstition can still cause people to loose sight of what's at the heart of the story.

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