Natural History Museum's Origins of Western Culture hall will close for a 3-year renovation

The popular mummies at the National Museum of Natural History are going into storage while the Origins of Western Culture hall is renovated.
By Jacqueline Trescott
Friday, September 3, 2010

The mummies at the National Museum of Natural History are going into storage. Their antiquated hall, the Origins of Western Culture, will close Sept. 26 for an extensive three-year renovation, although a few specimens will be viewable next spring.

The one human mummy and handful of animal mummies are among the museum's most popular attractions, right behind the Hope Diamond and the giant whale and squid. Featured are an Egyptian male, 2,200 years old, and an Apis bull, from 332-30 B.C. Both are displayed with the elaborate inner and outer coffins of Tenet-Khonsu, a high priestess from around 1000 B.C.

The Western Culture hall is one of the oldest displays at the 100-year-old museum, having opened as a full exhibition in 1978. The story line follows the development of mankind, tools and lifestyles from the Ice Age to about A.D. 500. In recent years, the museum has been tearing apart its old halls, updating scholarship in several areas and introducing new features, such as the Sant Ocean Hall. All these revisions have only accentuated the datedness of the mummies' enclosures.

As a nod to the mummies' popularity, the museum will create a semi-permanent home for a number of its Western Culture artifacts, which would open in spring 2011. The new place will be at a "crossroads location," right by the O. Orkin Insect Zoo.

Looking forward to having the mummies back in his laboratory, even for a short time, is David R. Hunt, the collections manager for the department of physical anthropology. His research lair, in a basement of the giant building, contains freezers for some bodies, shelves for sorting remains, stacks of coffins and other burial materials and mannequins from old exhibits, some dating from the 1890s.

In the inner sanctum of this mini-warehouse is a spotless room, about 700 square feet, kept at 72 degrees. Here are about 38 relatively complete human mummies. Most of the collection in Hunt's laboratory consists of parts of human or animal remains, even shrunken heads of the upper Amazon from the 1880s, which are catalogued in a series of oyster-colored cabinets. For years, the museum has been regularly X-raying mummies, Stradivarius violins, space suits and fossils, as well as sick animals from the zoo, to get a noninvasive look at what's inside them. Ling-Ling, the female giant panda who died in 1992, had a scan before her autopsy. A slightly dozy lion, as well as a tortoise that was believed to be male but turned out female, was examined by Hunt. During the period when the mummies aren't on display, Hunt hopes to learn some new things about the remains and burial techniques, using the latest technology of CAT scans and radiology.

"Even with the ancient Egyptian materials, you find new things. Sometimes what has been said about embalming was the interpretation of 1905 and 1910. Now we can use new methods," Hunt said.

Hunt opens one drawer to show parts of an individual from Mexico, about 300 years old, whose legs, hips, ribs and skull are ready for study. They've aged to a coffee brown.

In the middle of the room, "Soap Man" is resting on his back. This is a famous mummy, found in Philadelphia during an excavation in 1875. "The muscle fat and body fat turned into a soap," Hunt says. The remains were buried, but water infiltrated his casket and hydrolysis turned the fat into soap.

Soap Man was about 5 foot 9 wearing stockings, and lived to his 40s. It was originally thought he was buried in 1792 and was approximately 63 years old. Hunt and fellow researchers now conclude he could have died from yellow fever but probably not during the epidemic of 1792. The body has been studied since 1958, when the Smithsonian received it from the Wistar and Homer Museum in Philadelphia. "We narrowed his death between 1800 and 1810 because that fits well with the preservation," Hunt said.

One prize cadaver, which has been part of the Smithsonian collection for decades, is a Peruvian mummy, dated about A.D. 1300-1375. She is sitting in one of Hunt's cabinets with her legs folded and her bent arms holding the side of her face. "They used the natural environment to preserve her. They waited until the spirit had left" to wrap her up, he said. From the 1970s to 1991, the Smithsonian did display the Peruvian Mummy and Soap Man, but, because of the mummies' fragility, the anthropologists rotate the presentations.

The remains are studied through an examination of the burial techniques using carbon dating and CAT scan. Once the displays are dismantled upstairs, the Egyptian mummy will probably be sent through the CAT scanner. The bull is too large, so Hunt plans to do some cross-body X-rays. The linen used to wrap Minister Cox, the nickname of the Egyptian mummy, has frayed around the shoulder and the feet. The bull is covered with linen strips and is filled with cloth stuffing and bones.

"Our biggest problem is the conservation and preservation factor. When the mummies are on display, even under the best conditions, they deteriorate," Hunt explains. "You have to worry. You can control it, but you can't stop it."

How everything, including the mummies, will be displayed in a few years is still under consideration.

One goal of the Western Cultures restoration is to bring the research from Hunt's lab, and the rest of the anthropology department, right into public view.

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