Showcasing Ta-Irty-Bai: Uncovering Her History at Woo

Students view Wooster’s mummy, Tai-Irty-Bai, during last week’s mummy viewing at the Art Museum. (Photo courtesy of Tyler Rak ’24)
Tyler Rak ’24, Business Manager

The College of Wooster mummy. An elusive figure shrouded in mystery. Some say she roams the steam tunnels at night. Others say that students should rub her toes for good luck. Where, you may ask, has the mummy been all these years? Not roaming the steam tunnels, but rather stored away in the Ebert Art Center awaiting the next exhibit to emerge from the depths to educate a new audience. 

Wednesday, Nov. 10, marked the first time Wooster’s mummy has been exhibited to the public in nearly two decades. As Dr. Marianne Wardle, director and curator of The College of Wooster Art Museum, said, “Many people have only heard rumors about a mummy in the museum’s collection, so our goal was to present Ta-Irty-Bai in a way that demythologized her existence.” Accompanying this public viewing was an interdisciplinary lecture that put the College’s mummy in perspective and educated students about the role it plays on campus. 

Before the lecture, the atmosphere in the room had a palpable sense of suspense. Many students had the chance to see Ta-Irty-Bai before the lecture, which drove much of the conversation beforehand. Dylan Strickland ’23, said, “I was floored just by seeing the mummy. I started out flatly incredulous because of how forbidden it had seemed for four years, but once I clapped eyes on it there was a sense of shock. That she was still mostly intact, the sarcophagus beautifully decorated. You could see the craftsmanship of the thing and how much it must have meant. And that the mummy was here in Wooster of all places, for me and anyone else to see. It felt very special, but like I was somehow treading on dangerous ground, that the veil was thinning or something.”

Other students were a bit more hesitant, with Miriam Harley ’24 saying “Overall, just a strange and eerie feeling that I’m still mulling over.” Her discomfort came from the thought that the mummy “was a real person, she had family and friends and aspirations and now she’s dead in Wooster, Ohio.” While this may have been an eerie feeling for some, this is exactly why the lecture accompanied this exhibit, to humanize and contextualize Ta-Irty-Bai. 

Dr. Monica Florence, chair of the classical studies department, opened the lecture discussing who was, or perhaps more accurately, who is, the Wooster mummy. Her name,Ta-Irty-Bai, means “the two eyes of my soul.” She lived in Akhim, Egypt during the third century B.C.E. and was likely a priestess and a member of the middle class, which allowed her to be mummified in death. Previous research has shown that she had no significant dental abscesses, implying that she had a healthy diet. She also broke the right femur in her leg and the distal radius in her arm which were both surprisingly mended in her lifetime.

The discussion then turned to Dr. Bhatki Mamtora, assistant professor of religious studies and South Asian studies. She began by discussing traditional rituals surrounding death from a global perspective. Her research, which specializes in Hindu traditions, did not directly dive into Egyptian practices surrounding death, but lent a frame through which outsiders can examine death rituals and practices from a respectful distance. 

The final presenter of the evening, Dr. Wardle, spoke both about Ta-Irty-Bai on campus and how human remains are treated in museums around the globe. Ta-Irty-Bai has been here at the College since the latter half of the nineteenth century. She, along with two other mummies in coffins, were purchased by John Giffin, a Presbtyerian missionary, in Egypt. One was sent to Wooster, another to Westminster College, and a third to Erskine College. Ta-Irty-Bai first resided in Old Main, which was the college’s main academic center before it burned down in 1901, where students would rub her toes for luck on tests, which has caused some damage to her wrappings and feet. Strickland, upon seeing this, said that, “seeing the abused leg I felt a wave of actual pity for Ta-Irty-Bai and it really hit me that I was looking at a corpse.”  When thef ire erupted in Old Main,Ta-Irty-Bai was rescued either by being pushed from a window or carried out the front door, the latter of which Wardle finds the more likely claim of the two. After this near escape, she resided in Scovel Hall until being transferred to the Art Museum in the 1960s.

More recently, debates surrounding the treatment of human remains have come to the forefront of museums’ minds. “Holding human remains in museum collections is really ethically complicated,” said Wardle. “Ultimately, most of us hope that our physical remains will rest undisturbed somewhere or that we will at least have some say in what happens to our bodies after death.” She went on to remind students and community members, “tThat Ta-Irty-Bai was a person from whom we can still learn, but keeping and exhibiting her physical remains is not neutral or straightforward.” 

This idea of ethical treatment of remains came up repeatedly in the Q&A following the lecture. Dr. Wardle pushed students to continue asking questions and debating these issues.” She went on to say that the College presents a variety of ways to get involved in this process. “With a new museum studies minor and a museum and archival studies pathway,” Wardle says, “we should be modeling the ever-changing expectations and understandings of the museum field by engaging in authentic, gritty, complex conversations about ethics in our campus community.”

Many members of the campus have an interest in engaging with Ta-Irty-Bai more in the future. While Wardle acknowledges that many students attended out of curiosity, moving forward she noted that “I don’t know how often she will come out, but it will never be to simply satisfy curiosity. It’s important for us to cultivate a community of respect and learning and Ta-Irty-Bai can be an important colleague in that process.”

While this sentiment is important, many students viewed this as an integral learning experience that should be repeated in the future. “In any case, I do firmly believe that Ta-Irty-Bai needs to be made a lot more accessible,” claims Strickland, “so that more people can experience the sense of wonder I did, and to stop the creepy jokes and everything that hung around the mummy like a miasma until last week.”

In the end, this lecture provided students and community members with a unique experience to demystify and humanize Wooster’s mummy.

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