Cleopatra bobbleheads are among treasures of Egyptian kitsch

This weekend the University of Pennsylvania museum launches an exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the arrival of its sphinx. At about 15 tons, it is the larget sphinx in the western hemisphere.

As part of the centennial, associate curator Jen Wegner and her husband Joseph ― also an Egyptologist with the University of Pennsylvania ― are preparing a book about the sphinx, which dates back more than 3,000 years.

Jen is also preparing for Halloween.

“Halloween is a very important holiday for Egyptologists,” said Wegner in her West Philadelphia home. “It’s a high holy day for Egyptologists.”

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The mantelpiece in the front room is stacked with mummies of every variety: plush mummies, soap dispenser mummies, candlestick mummies, plastic toy mummies. Wegner makes the distinction between mummy-scary and mummy-cute.

“I’m a big fan of mummy-cute,” said Wegner, grabbing a mummy cow which makes a moo-ing sound when you flip it over, and an animatronic mummy that dances to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

Wegner also has curio cabinets full of Cleopatra bobbleheads, pyramid candlesticks, pharoah tissue box (the tissues are pulled out of King Tut’s nose), and camel kitsch, which she finds on eBay, in thrift stores, and receives from friends.

She says it is not unusual for serious Egyptologists to harbor a secret passion for Egyptian kitsch. It gets competitive.

“My professor at Yale is constantly looking at what we have, saying, ‘I have that. I don’t have that. Where did you get that? I’m going to get one of those,'” said Wegner.

In spite her collection, Wegner is very serious about Egypt. She specialized in late-period languages and the era of Cleopatra. Her husband ― who specialized in earlier periods ― regularly travels to Egypt for archeological digs. The two are working together on a book about the Penn Museum’s Sphinx, which is associated with a cluster of destroyed temples for the god Ptah.

The Wegners have been researching what the sphinx meant to the ancient city of Memphis, and what it has meant to the modern city of Philadelphia. The newspapers of 1913 were dominated by two stories: the Philadelphia Athletics beating the New York Giants in the World Series, and the arrival of the 15-ton Sphinx.

“There was a lot of excitement when it came,” said Jospeh. “Reporters must have swamped the docks when it arrived, because there were reports of this big sphinx wrapped in burlap, and the trouble they had getting it off because there wasn’t a crane big enough.”

Since the sphinx was put into place 100 years ago (it has not budged since) it has been the focal point of the Penn Museum. “Every school group sees it and takes picture of themselves with it. The sphinx has been the backdrop of weddings, funerals even, and lecture and dinners,” said Jen. “It has always been there, but I think people don’t know much about its story.” The book is expected to be published early next year.

As for the more ephemeral Egyptian kitsch decorating the couple’s home, Jospeh says it is mostly his wife’s collection. Jen points to a their wedding photo in the living room, in which husband and wife posed with an inflatable King Tut sarcophagus.

“I did not dress up as Cleopatra at my wedding,” said Jen. “I wore a regular bride gown.”

But did she want to? “I did. It’s true.”

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