Composing music for mummies

"Paint The Eyes Softer" exhibit showcases mummy portraits from Roman Egypt (Jourdan Kerl/MEDILL).

By Jourdan Kerl
Medill Reports

Each ancient portraits’ piercing gaze leaps from the shadows of the gray walls, lending an ambience of an abyss at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University.

The exhibit “Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt.” features portraits painted to be placed over the faces of  wrapped mummies.

The soft music playing through the space adds to the meditative mood.  “Respectful,” yet “minimalist” could describe the melody surrounding these expressions.

Thomas Molash drew inspiration from these two words to compose the ambient soundtrack “Abyss” for the portrait exhibit.

Molash, a Northwestern senior studying radio, television and film, composed the melody tune to take visitors closer into the exploration of Roman Egypt and the portraits. After days of experimentation, the perfect blend of highs and lows gave way to the final ambience.

“If I could make a track that had this meditative, calming, atmospheric nature to it, people could almost be entranced and be in each space longer,” Molash said.

The hum of the music evokes the ancient history that is portrayed throughout the room in more than 10  portraits from the Roman time period in Egypt. As adventurers wander deeper into the halls, the audio volume nearly fades away with the treasured portrait mummy No. 4 lying in wait.

This mummy’s remains accompany the portrait as the centerpiece of the exhibit. The mummy was discovered by Sir Flinders Petrie in December 1910 in Hawara, located in the Fayum region. Northwestern engineering and humanities students worked together to scan the remains and further understand this young girl’s life during the first to third centuries CE (current era).


Stephan Moore, a lecturer at Northwestern University’s School of Communications, taught Molash in his class “Topics in Sound: Museum Design” this past fall. This class became a successful partnership with the Block Museum for the students’ final projects.

Moore’s students delivered a vast range of final pieces to Essi Rönkkö, curatorial associate for special projects at the Block, and her fellow curators with each track showcasing a different mood and personification of Roman Egypt.

“Abyss” by Molash became the final selection.

“We really wanted something that was subtle…and respectful,” Rönkkö said, describing the final choice.

“Thomas’s [track] really captured what we had in mind beautifully.”

Moore shared these sentiments of the sound creating a special mood for the project.

“The exhibition space with no sound versus with sound design is two completely different exhibitions,” Moore said, recalling a conversation he shared with Rönkkö.

“It really transforms the space.”

With every element in place for the full exhibition, Molash said he simply wanted to create something that would complement the curators’ work and hoped to see continued partnerships such as this in the future.

“To me, the sound design, in a way, took the backseat and allowed more focus to be put on the elements in the exhibit,” Molash said.

“I hope the sound design was able to augment the experience [of seeing a mummy].”

Hear the sound and view the sights of history at the Block Museum Northwestern’s Evanston campus. “Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt” runs until April 22.

“Paint The Eyes Softer” exhibit showcases mummy portraits from Roman Egypt (Jourdan Kerl/MEDILL).