Tickets went on sale at the weekend for the premiere of Mummies of the World the largest single collection of mummies ever brought together in one exhibition, and the very first exhibition of its kind to be staged in the United States. Opening on July 1, itll take place at the California Science Centre in Los Angeles, and run for a limited time, before moving on to tour an as yet undisclosed string of museums around the US for up to three years.
Organised by American Exhibitions Inc. (AEI), in association with Reiss-Engelhorn Museums (REM) of Mannheim Germany, the exhibition will display with reverence and dignity mummified cadavers plus associated and complimentary artefacts not just from ancient Egypt, but from four continents Asia, Oceania, South America and Europe. Itll cover ages spanning several thousands of years. The oldest mummy featured will date from 6,500 years ago, the most recent the 18th century.
As our Top 10 Modern Mummies list highlights, mummification has been performed, in many different ways and for many different reasons, throughout history right up until the present day. Its not a phenomenon that always occurs by design some bodies become mummified by accident after being buried in bogs or frozen in glaciers.
Mummies of the World will give a broad overview of mummification in all its many forms, and consequently provide viewers hope organisers with an educational and scientific window into the cultures, history and lives of people who came before us.
Mummies International at ‘Mummies of the World’
They would carefully embalm all from famous pharaohs, such as Tutankhamun, Seti I and Ramesses the Great to name just a few that archaeologists have found so far to their pets, be it fish, rabbits or in particular cats, which were considered to be especially sacred (see Dr Salima Ikram discuss animal mummification in this video interview). One of the major displays at Mummies of the World will be of a large selection of Ptolemaic-period Egyptian cat mummies, gathered together on loan from various museums in Germany.
Another mummy that will feature originates from a different part of the world altogether, and predates King Tut by more than 3,000 years. The Detmold Child is an embalmed Peruvian baby of 8-10 months, which survives in incredibly intact condition, despite being radiocarbon dated to between 4504 and 4457 BC thats 1,000 years earlier than even tzi the Iceman. It joins the exhibition on very special loan from the Lippisches Land Museum in Detmold, Germany.
A much more modern mummy on display, also on loan from Germany specifically the collection of Dr. Manfred Baron von Crailsheim will be that of Baron Von Holz, a 17th century nobleman who its thought died in Sommersdorf during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Von Holz was discovered in the family crypt of the von Crailsheim familys late 14th-century castle, still wearing his boots.
Other esteemed guests of relative youth, mummies-wise, will be The Orlovits Family, who derive from of a group of 18th-century mummies discovered in a long-forgotten church crypt in Vc, Hungary in 1994. Michael and Veronica Orlovits and their son Johannis were preserved intentionally or otherwise by the cool, dry air and oil from the pine boards used to build their coffins. They join Mummies of the World on loan from the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest.
Science of Mummification
As already mentioned, mummification can be carried out in a number of ways. The ancient Egyptians flavoured drying out a corpse for weeks using natron salt from the bed of the Nile (Dr Ikram explains this on video), then carefully wrapping it in bandages. Techniques practiced in more recent years range from submerging a cadaver in a chemical-filled preservation tank to perfusing it with wax, effectively rendering it a giant human candle.
The science of making and researching mummies will be one of the key focuses of the Mummies of the World exhibition, in a bid to shift peoples perceptions of a practice thats most closely associated with the land of the pharaohs, and lavishly-entombed kings wrapped in dirty bandages. In fact, any body (human or animal) in which soft tissue, skin or hair still exists may be considered a mummy no matter how or where its been preserved.
Broadly speaking, mummies can be divided into two categories: natural (sometimes called spontaneous) and artificial, or human-assisted (sometimes called anthropogenic). Mummies of the former category have been found everywhere from the Andes Mountains and caves in Greenland to acid peat bogs in Scotland and Ireland. Mummies of the latter category originate everywhere from ancient Egypt and Greece to modern day Russia, China and Argentina.
Just to make matters confusing, the exhibition will also highlight a third category of mummification placed somewhere between natural and artificial, as exemplified by the Pazyryk mummies. Found in the Russian Steppes, these were prepared by humans after their death, then left out in the cold to be naturally frozen.
Highlighting the sheer diversity of the mummy phenomenon will be one of the core strands of Mummies of the World. As will be our ability to learn more than ever about mummies through state-of-the-art technologies and techniques. CT-scanning (which has yielded some interesting information about King Tuts cause of death, and the sex of some of the Brooklyn Museums mummies) as well as radiocarbon dating and X-ray have revolutionized the study of mummies, while DNA sampling as Bob Mr Mummy Brier explained in a recent interview with Heritage Key promises to unlock many more of their secrets still.
But is it Ethical to Show Off Dead Bodies?
Isnt an exhibition based around the display of long-dead, sometimes gruesome human remains slightly macabre, and with it slightly unethical (read Paula’s article for more on the ethics of preserving mummies)? Not so Mummies of the World, say organisers. They claim to have given careful consideration to which mummies theyll exhibit, and why theyre exhibiting them. Theyre confident that Mummies of the World is being staged in the best possible taste, with a strong educational remit, as summed up by this statement from Re. Cecil L. Chip Murray, a member of the California Science Centers Ethics Advisory Council:
The leadership of the California Science Center brings access to our minds of the historic footsteps of humankind as traced through the process of mummification. DNA and other modern specialties allow us to properly determine validity and human ties without desecrating the laws governing respect for human dignity and life. The displays were designed for such times as these and such questions we ponder.
Keep an eye on Heritage Key for photographs from Mummies of the World once it opens, as well of details of future destinations for the touring exhibition. If you make it along to the premier in California, drop us and let us know what you think!