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The Egyptian Room: The South Australian Museum

Some years ago I took a group of students to the museum. I was surprised and totally unprepared for two things that occurred during the visit. The first was that I had not been there for decades. My mother had taken us as very small children: I think I must have been about five at the time. The result was that this particular room affected my memory and a whole host of things I thought I had forgotten came flooding back, quite suddenly. Secondly it was the first time I had encountered death in the bandaged embalmed body of an Egyptian mummy. The effect was both disturbing and profound.

When local media identity Peter Goers wants to re-live his childhood, he heads for the Ancient Egypt Gallery at the Museum of South Australia.

“It’s a wonderful museum and this to me is the jewel in its crown”, he says while perusing the 650 artefacts, most genuine pieces from Ancient Egypt (plus a few replicas and model casts).

“The poet Jeff Guess wrote a poem about this room. I love that poem. He said it was” ‘the small room of our childhoods’. Almost every South Australian child comes in here and have done since it opened.”

“That was back in 1939 and very little has changed since.

You can walk into this room, at whatever age, and you are instantly transported back to the first time you came here.

“I would have visited with my mother and grandmother in the early sixties. They would have been wearing hats and gloves because it was a big deal to come to town. We would have had lunch at The Buttery in John Martins or the heady luxury of the Myer Apollo Lounge. You’d have a Balfours pie and chips and a cake – maybe a Chester Square. My grandmother would have said,” ‘It’s nice to be waited on’.

The Egyptian Room

The South Australian Museum

Higher up then It all seemed, somewhere above the narrow

dark stairway to the small room our childhood

somehow depended on. Standing on our toes

our noses barely at the glass, we understood

even then and felt the edges of something

difficult - that afterwards troubling our dreams we would

not put words to for a long time. Coming

in from the winter's city streets dripping with cold

with mother, to this private place, where so many years hung

on the faces of the dead. And in the deep glass cases

of green painted wood, things folded away for so long

still mattered. It was the closest

we had ever come to death.

Knowing little then of even pain. Standing afterwards

somewhere within the warm deep folds of her dress.

Losing later at lunch in Woolworths amidst noise and fuss

things I think I went back to show them yesterday-

on the train, through a wet and winter city.

Clattering up the noisy stone stairway

to the same room, after so many years to see

that nothing had changed, only what I

couldn't hold back. Standing where she once stood

for us, beside King Khafra's cast. Seeing with different eyes

in this small dark old room, crowded

with a class of kids no less absorbed with that same strange

spell and sorrow, clutching always at the heart of things.

Here: where it will always be a kind of summer, along

the banks of a green Nile and in the Valley of the Kings.

©Jeff Guess 2017

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