Reading the Coffin of Meresamun

Robert K. Ritner

Oriental Institute, University of Chicago

As made explicit in its formal title, the current Oriental Institute temporary exhibit, "The Life of Meresamun: A Temple Singer in Ancient Egypt," purports to illuminate the specific "life" and cultural environment of an individual who performed a known religious function in a particular region and era. In one of several articles serving to publicize the installation, Emily Teeter, the exhibit’s curator, has noted: "Oddly, the beautifully painted coffin and the mummy within have never previously been the focus of a study... Considering the lack of attention, an in-depth look at Meresamun and her times proved to be an ideal subject for a temporary exhibit at the Oriental Institute Museum in 2009." Opening in February 2009, the exhibit was accompanied by a formal catalogue bearing the same name. The following remarks are less a conventional revue of the exhibit and its associated publicity than a reflection on proper expectations of public exhibitions on Egyptological themes. Put simply, what is required or allowable in terms of content, spatial and temporal range when presenting to the public an overview of a specific period, reign or individual? The exhibit on Meresamun presents one opportunity to examine this question.