Curator’s Diary 23/08/13: Reactions to the ‘mystery of the spinning statuette’

Neb-iww (as his name appears more likely to be read, rather than 'Neb-senu') would no doubt have been delighted by the attention. Photo: Paul Cliff.

Neb-iww (as his name appears more likely to be read, rather than ‘Neb-senu’) would no doubt have been delighted by the attention. Photo: Paul Cliff.

Never could we have imagined that a 42-second video clip would cause such a publicity storm.

The response to the story of the ‘spinning statuette’ has been quite incredible, with worldwide TV and radio attention. Millions have viewed the original YouTube clip, and countless more have seen the video on other websites. The Museum has received thousands of emails offering interpretations and asking more questions; an entire class of primary school children wrote to me individually to give their own explanations for the movement.

The comments on the blog post give a flavour of most enquiries, which it has been impossible to answer individually. People most commonly wanted to know the exact size of the statuette (25.4cm tall), the direction of the spinning movement (anti-clockwise) and if the statuette stopped in any favoured direction (it did seem to prefer a roughly easterly orientation, but never stuck in one position for more than a few days).

The explanation for the movement is disappointingly simple. This was made quite obvious when the statuette was taken out of its case during refurbishment works on the gallery a few weeks ago. The base of the statuette is convex and was prone to pivot on a certain point, and the statuette spun very easily when given the slightest nudge – or from tapping the glass shelf on which it rested. Even very subtle vibrations would cause such movement. On consulting older images of the piece on display, it was seen that a plastazote base had been put in place to stopped this action in the previous gallery. A conservation-grade membrane has now been affixed to the base of this and other objects to prevent movement in future. The source of vibrations included a combination of the footfall of visitors, traffic outside and work in and around the building. Although the precise physics of the motion are still being debated, of all the explanations offered it seemed to me that the ‘rattleback’ theory is most persuasive.

How the British tabloid 'The Sun' presented the story. Photo: Michelle Scott.

How the British tabloid ‘The Sun’ presented the story. Photo: Michelle Scott.

Regardless (or, in spite) of any such logical explanations, some people prefer other interpretations. This is simply human nature and is proof – if it were needed – of the heady combination of ancient Egypt and the apparently unexplained. It was interesting to observe the statistics on this blog at the peak of interest in the story. These revealed a common conflation and confusion in search terms, with people Google-ing ‘spinning mummies,’ ‘spinning sphinxes’ even ‘spinning amulets’ – all things that float around in the rich, exotic soup that is – for most people – ‘Ancient Egypt.’

Ultimately, the ‘spinning statue’ sensation says far more about popular culture and perceptions of ancient Egypt in 2013 than it does about any one object. There has been an understandable concern that the worldwide media attention of the ‘spinning statuette’ has reinforced tired ideas of ancient Egypt being weird, mysterious and spooky. These ideas are still deeply ingrained in modern culture and the Museum has attempted – as we have done for other topics – to challenge these through explanations of (equally interesting) Pharaonic beliefs and practices.

Yet here is an instance when one small, normally overlooked museum object became known to a broad public, well beyond those that usually visit or engage with museums. If even only a few of the people who have come to the Manchester Museum just to see the ‘spinning statue’ stay to learn something more about Ancient Worlds, or our other collections, then I think the barrage of press attention will have been worthwhile.

1 Comment

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One response to “Curator’s Diary 23/08/13: Reactions to the ‘mystery of the spinning statuette’

  1. I feel you mock the Gods with your “explanation” but nevertheless as I made one of my occasional visits to Manchester in June I did go out of my way to come and visit, after the media attention, and I did stick around the whole exhibition. I also had to swat away the coach-loads of school kids to get a good photo!

    Interesting to note, like the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who, they’re all statues that only move when you’re not looking at them…

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