They had recently removed a traveling exhibit of Egyptian antiquities from one gallery and were due to open up a new display from their permanent collection in less than two and a half hours.
And camera No. 8 was on...
Security footage taken April 23, 2009, by Camera 8 at the museum showed a view familiar to fans of horror movies. On dark, pixelated, almost monochromatic video, staffers work at various stations, cleaning and preparing pieces or doing last-minute work on mounts or labels for pieces.
Sitting on a display stand in one corner, while its mount waits to get touched up with paint, is item number EG.02.007.2003, a "naturalistic mummy mask" about 10 inches long, a plaster mask of an unknown Egyptian woman, painted to add realistic features.
It was created in the second century A.D., when the Romans ruled Egypt, when mummification was still practiced on both native Egyptians and wealthy foreigners, although the style of the funerary decorations had taken a turn toward a more natural style. Before coming to RAFFMA, the mask had been owned by a private collector in Vienna, Austria.
There was concern that the mask was taking up a slot where a squat statue of Bes, an Egyptian god that protects women during pregnancy, might need to go.
"We were talking about her and Bes and saying she'd be upset," museum director Eva Kirsch said.
At 2:51 p.m., Camera 8's video shows the mask roll over onto its left cheek and then be hurled to the floor. No one was around it; Kirsch is visible in the video about 15 feet away, cleaning an item for another display.
"There was nobody else in that space, nothing that would create vibrations," Kirsch said, speaking with a strong Polish accent. "Imagine, she's like a soup bowl. Upside down, very stable, and she fell, turned upside down."
The mask's nose and chin were shattered, but the mask survived mostly intact.
"Nothing like this has remotely happened to us," Kirsch said. The staff takes great care with all the pieces in the museum, she said, especially because many are only part of visiting exhibitions or on long-term loans from their owners. "There's no way that it could roll like this."
But there's the video, showing exactly that, and showing that no one was interested in damaging the mask.
"Luckily, we do have the video to show that we were taking the high standard of care," said Andrea Callahan, development and PR coordinator for the museum.
The staff immediately alerted university officials, showing them the video from Camera 8, which shows the mask well in from the edge of the display, and no one nearby when, over the course of about four seconds, it rolls sideways and off the table.
"We all watched it many times," Kirsch said. "It still creeps me out."
It's not the only time the case in the corner of the museum has been the site of strange occurrences - in 2010, a tiny amulet of Egyptian goddess Ta-weret twisted itself around backwards inside the locked case, although the rest of the contents remained undisturbed. And, museum staff said, visitors regularly say the corner is "creepy," even though they try to keep the story of what happened to the mask to themselves.
"When you think about it, it's pretty cool," assistant registrar Linda Apodaca said.
Today, Bes sits in the spot once meant for number EG.02.007.2003. The mask sits in the museum's vault.
"It's time to get her fixed," Kirsch said. It's taken her three years to make plans to take the mask to Los Angeles for the extensive repairs it needs. "I'm reluctant to have her in the car with me."