The Mummy Wenuhotep

Loan to The Children’s Museum

“As far as children are concerned, a museum is not a museum without a mummy,” director Grace Golden once remarked in a letter. Golden finally was able to fill that hole in the museum’s collection with a phone call to Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Much to her surprise the Institute agreed to loan The Children’s Museum one of several mummies it had in storage.

Formerly EL93.1.1.1-.2,  Mummy, Egypt, 685 B.C.

In October 1959 a 445-pound box arrived in Indianapolis via train and was transported to the museum. Inside the box was a carved and painted wooden sarcophagus containing what was thought to be the mummy of Wenuhotep, the daughter of an Egyptian priest, from 685 B.C. or later.

One of a large cache of mummies discovered in an ancient Egyptian burial site by German archeologist Emile Brugsch in 1881, “Wenuhotep” was wrapped in linen and wore a gold mask. She was encased in an elegantly painted coffin. Put on display in a specially prepared second-floor gallery in the Parry House, the mummy quickly became a highlight of every family visit and group tour, leading Golden to tell the Institute director, “I cannot recall when anything has caused so much pleasurable interest.” Through the years, “Wenuhotep” (or a replica) was a focal point of a variety of exhibits, the last of which was What if . . . ? which closed in 2009.

Research on Wenuhotep

Twice during her long stay in Indianapolis “Wenuhotep” was examined using technologies that allowed scientists to discover more about her. In November 1967 staff and students from Winona Hospital used portable X-ray equipment that seemed to reveal “Wenuhotep” had been in her late teens when she died, and that she had stood 5 feet, 8 inches tall, weighed between 125 and 135 pounds, and had a bracelet on her right wrist.

Advances in imaging technology led to a second examination in 1988, this time using a portable CT scanner. More accurate than the earlier X-ray, the CT scan altered many of the conclusions from the earlier exam: rather than a teenager, “Wenuhotep” was most likely 30 to 40 years old when she died, and she stood only 5 feet 2 inches tall. Based on the scan, an artist drew a portrait of her face and in 1989 a medical illustrator at the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois sculpted a bust of the 1,500-year-old woman.

Return to Chicago and Identity Question

Originally on loan for a year, “Wenuhotep” remained at The Children’s Museum for nearly 50 years before finally returning to her Chicago home in 2006. In the interim she became so identified with the museum that in a post-visit letter one young visitor advised museum officials to “keep an eye on that mummy,” a remark that later became the title of Nancy Kriplen’s 1982 book about the museum’s history. The museum did more than the young visitor suggested: before returning “Wenuhotep, the museum commissioned the creation of a replica for its permanent collection. Wenuhotep was returned to the Art Institute of Chicago, which in the years she spent at The Children’s Museum, was determined to be the owner (the Art Institute had loaned the mummy to the Oriental Institute, which in turn loaned it to The Children’s Museum in 1959).

In 2008, researchers with the Oriental Institute completed a study of the mummy for the Art Institute of Chicago. That study revealed that the mummy was at least 350 years younger than the coffin that held her, so she could not possibly be Wenuhotep!