There’s a museum in San Francisco International Airport, with exhibits all around the different terminals. A library too, but I gather it’s mostly history-of-aviation stuff and I didn’t go to that. The part of it that I visited was right between check-in and the security line for international departures. It’s not huge; about a dozen or so small cases. But it’s legit!
The exhibit on when we went was Egyptian Revival: an Everlasting Allure, which is about, you guessed it, Egyptian Revival art. I’ve always been fascinated by the way popular culture interprets the past, as you’ll know if this isn’t the first post by me you’ve read (and if it is, welcome!), so this was really interesting. The exhibit covers a couple of different eras of fashionable Egyptian stuff, including the late 19th century and the post-King-Tut 20s, with some things being a little later. Is there a word for that kind of faux-Egyptian art, as though one were to say Chinoiserie? I have no idea.
Anyway, highlights included:
I never see Egyptian Revival stuff at vintage fairs or whatever, but maybe it’s because I’m not looking hard enough. Possibly someone’s missing a trick. Get on it, Etsy.
So yeah! That was an exhibit that I would actually have gone to see at a museum, only free (which is not as universal in the US as it is here) and conveniently located between dropping off our bags and taking off our shoes. A fitting end to the journey.
I have written in the past about superheroes and archaeology, largely inspired by the papers given at the Monstrous Antiquities conference back in November. Today, I just want to point out that there is a surprising amount of archaeology in the 1979 Spider-Woman cartoon … or, well … sort of.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Spider-Woman cartoon, but it seems to have been largely an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Wonder Woman, right down to the spinning transformation, here called a “spider-spin.” And yeah, you know you’re back in the olden days when Marvel is trying to cash in on a DC property.
Anyway, the cartoon basically resembles what you’d get if you got one of the less grounded Bronze Age creators (poor old Bill Mantlo, perhaps, or maybe Bob Kanigher (I may mean Bob Haney)) and just fed them an absolute shitload of cough syrup and told them to have at it, oh, and to try to work in something educational to satisfy the FCC. Maybe the easiest way for you to see what I mean about this show’s bizarre mix of earnestness and foolery is just to watch an episode.
Our very first episode is “Pyramids of Terror,” and it kicks off with Spider-Man being in Egypt (for some reason) where he is captured by a villainous mummy. Spider-Woman, her bumbling sidekick and her plucky sidekick go off to Egypt following a series of mummy attacks, and then … erm …
It turns out, right, that these mummies came from space in their pyramid ships and were buried under the sands of Egypt lo these many years ago, and I guess they inspired ancient Egyptian culture, because why not? The classic motif of the Sphinx shooting beams out of its eyes is gone one better here — not only does it have eyebeams, but if the beams hit you, they turn you into a mummy!
Eventually, Spider-Woman realises that the motive force behind the alien spaceships is, no fooling, Pyramid Power and uses her webbing to turn the lead ship into a cube.
It’s like a checklist of pop culture Egypt:
did ancient astronauts …?
So this is all well and good, but what’s weird is that it keeps happening. Spider-Woman is a very globe-trotting sort of heroine, and she winds up in contact with a lot of past-type stuff.
She goes back to the 10th century to fight some Vikings:
Fights some Amazons in a vaguely Mexico-ish sort of Amazon temple thing:
And there’s a few more temples and castles as well. Apparently it all gets a bit more UFO-y in the later seasons, but I’m not there yet. I really just wanted to share that mummy episode with people because, you know, pink pyramid spaceship with sphinx-shaped mummy-ray turret.
Having now been through Parts One, Two and Three of my trip to the Rosicrucian Museum, it’s time to wrap up. I don’t have a clear conclusion, so this might be a bit rambling.
First off, the museum definitely succeeds as a tourist attraction. We are here on holiday, we decided to spend a morning at the museum, and we had a very good time. It’s $9 to get in (less discount for me), and that’s pretty reasonable. I think the Hollywood-Egyptian park and decoration definitely contribute to this experience — the showiness of it makes it feel special, somehow.
As I said in a previous post, I am not an Egyptologist. It’s perfectly possible that there are artefacts in here that are misidentified, or interpretation that’s either outmoded or simply wrong. I can’t comment on that. Overall, the museum is a bit of a grab bag, which may be the result of an older way of doing things. You can definitely see this in the way mummies and mummy-related objects are strewn around every part of the museum. Mummies are cool, the founder and his successors acquired a bunch of mummies, we have some empty space … you get the idea.
This approach can make people who think about museums and how they work grind their teeth, and probably rightly so. But there’s a lot about the Rosicrucian Museum that’s rather old-fashioned.
One thing that was very striking about the museum was the clear attempt to create an overall atmosphere of hushed mystery and exoticism. The lighting, the Egyptian-themed decor, the contrast between bright California day outside and golden gloom inside — it’s all part of setting the stage to produce a certain atmosphere, and it’s as far from the bright, clean look of somewhere like the British Museum or the Cambridge MAA as you can get. I think this ties back in to what kept coming up at Monstrous Antiquities, something that’s probably old hat for people who study Egypt but was a bit newer to me, the idea that Egypt — even more than “the past” or “the ancient world” in general — is held up as this place that’s full of mystery and magic and wonder and horror. And this ties a little uncomfortably into my next point.
The next and final point is, of course, the Rosicrucian thing. Now I don’t have a whole lot of inside knowledge of how AMORC works. I don’t know if they are really into their mystical beliefs, or if it’s just some symbolic dressing on a charitable organisation or what. But I think that, given that those beliefs seem to have something to do with Egypt, it’s important to keep a wary eye on the lines. And there are lines at this museum, but I’m not sure they’re very sharp ones.
The actual Rosicrucian stuff and the Egyptian stuff are kept relatively distinct in terms of how the museum is organised: there’s Rosicrucian stuff in the lobby, in the room with the benches, in the reading room and in the art gallery, but there’s no Rosicrucian stuff in any of the archaeological galleries and no archaeology in any of the Rosicrucian ones. The only exception is the reading room, where, as I mentioned, proper Egyptology and Rosicrucian stuff are piled together all willy-nilly, although this may not be the fault of the museum.
I am … not convinced that this is really enough of a separation. It ain’t the Creation Museum, but there’s still a certain amount of woo very close to the non-woo, and if I were a kid like the ones in the two tour groups that were in there at the time we were, I’m not sure I’d necessarily know the difference. In particular, I might very well come away with a sense that ancient Egypt was a pretty woo-y place, which is the pop culture perspective, right enough, but surely, surely not what we’re supposed to be trying to accomplish? Well, “we,” I dunno. Somebody.
I grew up in this part of the world, of course, and when I was a kid I went to the Rosicrucian Museum, as every kid does, and I had no idea there was anything weird about it. I didn’t find out what a Rosicrucian was until much much later. And it didn’t do me any harm, so maybe I’m overthinking it.
Have some more photos:
I can no longer hear “Akhenaten” other than to the tune of “Rockin’ Robin.”
Welcome back to my series of posts on my recent trip to the Rosicrucian Museum in San Jose, California. This was originally meant to be two posts, but time and my tendency to prattle have escalated it a bit. It’s like that sometimes. Anyway, in Part One and Part Two I talked about the park in which the museum is set, as well as the ground floor and lobby. Let us now venture upstairs, where we will find a little lobby with some benches and a video playing.
The video, which I didn’t sit all the way through, seems to be a history of Rosicrucianism. I only saw the bit around the early 17th century when the Rosicrucian manifestos were published, so I don’t know if they talked about Atlantis or whatever. They seemed to take the party line — ie, that the Rosicrucians had existed prior to this but were hidden, rather than that the manifestos were what started the actual organisation. I didn’t see if they asserted a lineage from ancient whatever. The paintings and the decor generally suggest Egypt, or perhaps Aegypt, though, don’t they?
Heading up another short flight of stairs to the right brings us to the reading room, which is quite comfy-looking. There were some bored kids in here when we arrived, reading a children’s book about a pyramid of cheese and an Egyptian mouse (Tutankhamouse, in all probability). The shelves of the reading room were … interesting. Allison photographed pretty much every title on the shelves, and the mixture was interesting. You’ve got issues of mainstream publications:
You’ve got pop history (sorry, this one is a bit blurry):
You’ve got studies of Egypt in popular culture:
And then you’ve got …
And many more. I would say that the trend on the bookshelves was toward the esoteric, but far from exclusively so. Now, all of these were mixed together willy-nilly, but in fairness I did see that some shelves were labelled “Rosicrucian books” and so on, so it’s entirely possible that this mixture arose from people picking them up and then just putting them back in the wrong place. But doesn’t even that argue that people are taking these as being much the same kind of thing? I dunno.
They did have a copy of that massive Zahi Hawass thing, which was supposed to make inaccessible sites accessible but was not doing a very good job of it locked in a big-ass glass case.
Anyway, next to the reading room is the art gallery, or, as I like to think of it, where hippie-dippie meets arty-farty. It was … well, first off it was super dark in there, so the pictures aren’t great. But they were hippy stuff with vague shapes and soft coloured auras. Some of them were quite eerie and mysterious, I guess? The whole thing was called “Vibrations,” I shit you not.
There was some kind of shrine thingy at one end, too, with a mirror that had a rose affixed to it. I think it was meant to be over your chest if you stood in the right spot, but I’m not sure. Above it was a cross-triangle thingy, which is a recurring theme in AMORC symbolism — they are on the fountain and on the doors of the auditorium in earlier posts. I’m afraid this photo (which I took, not Allison) is pretty hard to see.
Anyway, back down the stairs to the room with the TV, and then back up across it to some more galleries. One on kingship and religion, one on Akhenaten, and one on … I’m not sure, actually. More artefacts, more models of things (the step pyramid of Djoser, in this case), etc. The school group was in the Akhenaten gallery, and a guide was giving them a clear but detailed account of his reign, including pointing out things like the differences in art styles and so on. It seemed like a very good explanation, simple enough for young kids but detailed enough to show some of the complexities.
And that’s that. In the next post, I’ll talk about what I think it all means.
In my last post, I talked about going with my wife to the Rosicrucian Museum in San Jose, California. You can read that post if you want the background to our quest and a description of Rosicrucian Park. In this post, I’m going to talk about what we encountered inside.
First, a disclaimer: I am not an Egyptologist. I have the basic knowledge that you’d expect from anyone’s who done archaeology, and I specifically studied funerary practices, so I’m a little more up on that aspect of things, but for most things Egyptological I am really an informed layman. So it may be that there are terrible errors that I failed to spot. Please bear that in mind.
What I was really interested in, going in, was actually not the quality of the displays or what have you, but the amount of Rosicrucianism to be found hidden in the interpretation — that is, given that this place was founded and funded by a quasi-occult secret society, how much of their, er, unique worldview was put forward in the exhibits? Let us, then, begin our journey into the mysteries of … ah, you know the drill.
We started out by heading left, into the exhibit on daily life in Ancient Egypt. Now, I’m not 100% certain what this massive inscription from the Sphinx has to do with daily life. This is one of the things about the museum: it’s kind of thematically organised, but on the other hand it only has so much space, so sometimes it looks like things were put wherever there was room for them. I find this kind of endearing from a tourist’s perspective — I understand that proper museum people do not appreciate it so much.
The daily life exhibit is more or less what you’d expect — you got your cosmetic palettes, your headrests, your pots, your somewhat hokey replica of a room for giving birth.
There are a surprising lot of bits of mummies and mummy paraphernalia in the daily life room. I mean, I recognise that religion and daily life were hard to separate in ancient Egypt, but I did sort of get the feeling that over the years they had collected a shitload of mummies and sort of felt that it was a shame for them to go to waste. There was a little section on Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt that at least acknowledged it was a thing.
Next to the Daily Life room was a thing about Mesopotamia, and I confess this was sort of the oddest part of the experience for me. It wasn’t really clear what it was doing there. There were a few words about “Egypt’s neighbour,” but that was the only neighbour they talked about (well, there was a cabinet of Persian stuff). And it was mostly “Mesopotamia’s Greatest Hits” — Code of Hammurabi, some reconstructions of things like the Hanging Gardens and a ziggurat (identified as the Tower of Babel), and of course the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III.
Wait, let me rephrase that.
THE BLACK OBELISK OF SHALMANESER III
BLAAAAARGH! YOU WILL MEET YOUR DOOOOOOOOOM!
Sorry, I just really love that name.
I do wonder if some of this stuff isn’t in there because it’s in or related to the Bible (the Black Obelisk famously contains a reference to the Abrahamic God) and that’s why it was considered important? I’m not sure that’s a kooky esoteric influence so much as maybe a sign that this collection reflects what people were interested in collecting back in the day. But anyway, Mesopotamia.
Crossing the hall, we passed by a framed poster in the lobby under a plaque that thanked the benefactors of the museum. It was headed THE ROSICRUCIAN TIMELINE and it was the first real piece of Rosicrucian wackiness we had seen up to that point. I’ll reproduce it here in its full hugeness so that you can click on it and see how it’s divvied up (although there was some glare on the frame).
It is the absolute usual western occult potted history: Egypt yadda yadda, mystery religions yadda yadda, Mithras, Hermeticism, alchemy, kabbalah, the Templars. Pick the “benevolent society of the enlightened” option and you could write it with your eyes close. I just thought this section was fun:
Yeah, that’s right. Atlantis. Now, in fairness, there is some waffle there about how its actually just a symbol of the “unknown source of the Primordial Tradition,” but even that’s assuming a lot. As goofy as all this might be, I have to say that it was in the lobby, not in an exhibit area, and that you wouldn’t necessarily mistake it for something that was meant to be part of the interpretation. Still maybe a bit shady, though?
Having crossed the lobby, we then came to the bit with the mummies, also known as The Bit Everyone Likes. This was pretty much what you might expect — mummies, mummy cases, mummy stuff, arranged more or less chronologically, with some good bits like X-rays of the baboon mummy that proved it was not in fact a baboon but a fake. There’s also a rock tomb replica, but we didn’t get to go inside because there was a group of schoolkids taking the tour.
So that’s the mummy room. I skimmed the little handouts near the door and didn’t detect any Rosicrucianism per se. It’s a bit theatrical in places, but just to my layman’s eye the whole thing seemed legit. I liked the baboon and the penises, which, I know, is something I say all the time. But it’s true!
Next post: we venture into the little movie-y place, the reading room and the art installation. Be here, it’ll be good!
All right, guys! I am here in America, and that means it’s time to do some field reporting. Today my wife and I took a trip to the Rosicrucian Museum in San Jose, California. Now, some people reading this are going “… the hell? There’s a Rosicrucian Museum?” And some people need an explanation.
The Rosicrucians are one of those weird occulty proto-Enlightenment things that pops up in Renaissance Europe — in this case in early 1600s Germany. They were (allegedly) a line of initiated expert-types who knew a lot about alchemy, astrology, science, magic, what have you, and would use their knowledge to lead Europe into a new age of peace and brotherhood. Whether or not any Rosicrucians actually existed before the publication of their founding texts, it wasn’t long before people began taking the term for themselves. Today there are God only knows how many different Rosicrucian groups around the world, ranging from slightly mystical Christian organisations to quasi-Masonic clubs to initiatory esoteric secret societies. The guys who run this museum, the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, are the latter.
So what the heck are a bunch of Renaissance utopian conspiracy mystics doing running an Egyptian history museum? Well, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll already have some inkling. These guys aren’t so much interested in Egypt as they are in Aegypt, the legendary home of occult initiation. And yet by all accounts this museum is legit. Let’s see for ourselves.
Now, before I left I decided I needed a little mystical protection of my own. As I’ve previouslydiscussed, the idea of Egypt being the source of mystical revelation also extends to the world of comic books. Consider, if you will, the case of the original Blue Beetle:
So in order to, you know, war against evil or whatever, I made sure I was prepared for the trip with my very own Blue Beetle shirt:
Thus protected, I set off to see what the place had to offer. I had been there before, but not really taken the time to document it or, to be honest, paid as much attention as I should have.
When you arrive at the Rosicrucian Museum, you will begin to see some things you would not expect to find in a major American city. Consider for instance this utility box thingy.
Now there’s something you don’t see every day. And the whole thing is like that: once you park and start walking around Rosicrucian Park, you might start to feel like you’re in some kind of Hollywood epic. The whole place is like some weird theme park/movie set. Allow me to demonstrate:
This little garden is next to the parking lot.
As you proceed into the park, you start to get more of an impression of the ancient Egyptian vibe of the place — although there’s also a lot of AMORC symbolism scattered around.
Now that we’ve explored the park, we can see that it’s a bit of a mishmash of different Egyptian styles and periods (minus the auditorium and planetarium), and there’s a certain amount of Rosicrucianism blended in amongst the Egyptian themes, as if it belongs there. I haven’t shown you the “peace garden,” because visually it’s not very interesting, but it does have a sort of hippy-ass poem on it about how you can contribute to peace by doing this, that and the other. It’s just not terribly exciting to look at.
But now that we’ve had a look around the exterior, let’s head to the entrance.
I have to tell you that it is pretty impossible to walk between the Sphinxes to the big brass door framed by pillars and not feel like a baller.
So we’ve seen the wonderfully gaudy and confused outside; will the inside live up to its promise? Well, I’ll talk more about this in my next post, but in order not to give the game away I will say: no, not really. It’s good … but it’s interestingly different from the outside.