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The Mummy Returns

After 80 years on display at the RISD Museum, an ancient Egyptian returns to his resting place

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Everybody loves Nesmin. The RISD Museum staff all refer to Nesmin by name. They encourage visitors to see Nesmin, to spend a little time with him on the third floor. Nesmin is much beloved, especially for a guy who died 2,250 years ago.

The Ptolemaic mummy has been on display since 1938, a well-wrapped bundle of cloth covered in intricate painting. Yet after much discussion, the museum has decided to put Nesmin back in his ornate coffin, where he was originally ensconced in the third century B.C.E.

“I don’t think Nesmin would have wanted to be disturbed,” says Gina Borromeo, RISD’s official curator of ancient art. “We are responding to the question as to whether human remains should be kept on display. Like most of us, this is not something we would wish on our loved ones.”

During his life, Nesmin was probably a wealthy priest to the fertility god Min. When he died, Nesmin was preserved as a mummy, and his coffin was elaborately decorated. Eventually, grave-robbers took the coffin from its tomb and sold it. The mummy changed hands several times before it was sold to RISD – by none other than newspaper titan William Randolph Hearst.

A mummy may seem like an odd acquisition for an art and design school, yet Borromeo says the human artifact makes a lot of sense. “Many mummies and coffins were taken from Egypt at a time [when] people wanted to have these objects to show their museums were world class,” she says. “It was a sign of prestige to have as complete a collection as possible. The thing a museum had to have was a mummy.”

The new exhibit will show the coffin under glass, and Nesmin himself will be sealed inside. Nearby, visitors can watch three informational videos: the first will decipher the inscription on his coffin, the second will chronicle his journey from Egypt to Providence, and third will explain their difficult decision to re-inter him.

“The mummified body is an important member of the collection,” says Borromeo. “The people who love him really do love him, and they are going to miss him.”