Student Perspective: Thaara Sumithra Shankar

By
Thaara Sumithra Shankar
I am a junior majoring in the History of Art and minoring in Classics and Museums and Society (Class of 2019). I am currently an Education Assistant at the Walters Art Museum, and have previously interned at the Met Cloisters and the Whitney Museum of American Art. I was interested in exploring the collection and learning practical skills about making exhibitions. I have enjoyed re-tracing these individuals’ lives and exploring the scientific processes involved.
Thaara Sankar and designer Cathy Schaefer during the installation of the exhibition

Thaara Shankar and designer Cathy Schaefer during the installation of the exhibition

The first Ancient Egyptian mummy I remember caring deeply about, is Mery, the mummy in the center of the Egyptian galleries at the Walters Art Museum. Perhaps it was because she had a name, that she stood out to me more than any of the other mummies I had seen before. She felt real, not just another “thing” to look at. Working at the Walters more than a decade later, I find that she still has an enduring appeal. She is often incorporated into our educational lessons in the galleries, and the fact that she has a name and a story sparks more interest and engagement with students than almost any other topic we explore.

I often wonder what it would be like to gaze upon my ancestors in a gallery, when viewing human remains in museums. Interpretation and display can range from exoticism/fetishism to treating these people as objects to be owned. It was from these observations and background that I applied to be part of the Facial Reconstruction Project. Over the last two years, I have learned much about the collection and how it came to be, how one can begin to re-trace and re-build the history of their lives, and how one creates an exhibition that encompasses what we have learned.

Beginning with a CT scan of the “Goucher” Mummy and the “Cohen” Mummy with Dr. Elliot Fishman, we explored the lives of these individuals. Throughout the process, we tried to remain as self-reflexive as possible, questioning why we/the museum called the mummies a name based on their collectors and what language we were using to describe the individuals – whether we were subconsciously referring to them as objects rather than people. From scientific analysis to reviewing historical records, various members of our team researched myriad aspects of their lives, constructing narratives that better tell us about who these individuals are. Museologically, working on the wall text, arrangement, and installation, taught me about what it means to present information that is both engaging and accessible. From changing lights to create as best a balance of light on the cases, to attaching the panels onto the walls, this project allowed me to truly immerse myself in exhibition planning and set up, a rare opportunity for an undergraduate. It has been an incredibly rewarding experience and we are very excited to showcase what we have learned about these magnificent individuals.