Following controversy, mummies at Penn Museum remain objects of mystery

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2011; C01

The Beauty of Xiaohe, a mummy from the torrid deserts of western China, had a long but uneventful trip to Philadelphia. For almost a year, she lay on view in museums in California and Texas, without controversy and without much more public notice than that which might be expected to greet an almost-4,000-year-old, perfectly preserved human being. But when she got to Philadelphia, something changed.

As she lay in a crate, surrounded by an astoundingly rich trove of cultural objects from the Tarim Basin, the Chinese government refused to give the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology permission to unload her and put her on view in its "Secrets of the Silk Road" exhibit. In early February, one of the most ambitious, expensive and time-intensive exhibitions the museum had ever planned looked in jeopardy.

It was a major blow for the Penn Museum and scholars such as University of Pennsylvania professor Victor Mair, who has for decades been studying these mummies and the astounding collection of textiles, funerary objects, domestic articles, jewelry and religious pieces found in a region that became crucial to the Silk Road. As the museum scrambled to mount the exhibition without the objects - producing models and photographs to take their place - Mair made an impassioned plea to the Chinese. Speaking the language flawlessly probably helped. In the end, the Chinese gave limited permission for the show to go forward.

The mummies, which also include a tightly swaddled baby with small stones resting on its eyes, who died of unknown causes sometime in the 8th century B.C., will be on display through March 15. From March 17-28, the exhibition will continue without the mummies but show all the other artifacts. And from April 2 until the originally scheduled June 5 closing, the exhibition will be open in modified form, with photographs and models but no mummies or artifacts, and no admission charge.

The curtailed run of the show, and the magnificence of what it contains, make this timed-entry, ticket-only exhibition one of the hottest events on the East Coast. Even without the mummies, it is a must-see.

Wang Baodong, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy, said the planned exhibition in Philadelphia would have extended the objects' stay outside China to more than a year, which is against Chinese law. He denied speculation that it had anything to do with cultural sensitivities about the material, which comes from a largely Muslim and ethnically Turkic region of the country. The initial decision to prevent the exhibition of the material in Philadelphia was not related to concerns about the sometimes volatile separatist feelings in the province where the material was buried centuries ago, Baodong said.

"Honestly, they cannot be outside of China for too long," he said, citing the fragility of the objects and Chinese regulations.

A spokeswoman for the University of Pennsylvania Museum said that it was all because of "a miscommunication" and declined to comment further.

Whether or not the contretemps at the university had anything to do with politics, it underscores the deeper, politically subversive nature of this material, which spans thousands of years of ethnic and commercial communication between East and West. It's not just the material found in graves and excavations, the perfectly preserved woolen robe carefully stitched together sometime around the age of Aeschylus, or the spring roll and won-ton appetizers from the time of Charlemagne, that overwhelms the visitor. Rather, it is the sense of possibilities - historically, politically and morally - that these objects offer. They challenge the viewer to think beyond, or think without, the categories of identity and politics that are reflexively built into the modern mind.

History, for the vast majority of museumgoers, is the history of kings and dynasties and coherent political entities, ideally ones with appealing legends and literature. But here are materials that even the untrained museum visitor can tell come from a grab bag of European, African and Asian sources, teeming with the detail of ordinary, anonymous, quotidian life.

"There is no place on Earth as rich in textile production, but there are no pharaohs," says Richard Hodges, director of the Penn Museum.

Advances in archaeology, increasingly sophisticated cross-disciplinary studies, the use of imaging techniques and DNA evidence have pushed the horizons of meaningful history further and further back in time. A powerful, synthetic sense of what was, sometimes called "prehistory," is producing books with titles such as "After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 B.C." and "Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 B.C.-A.D. 1000."

But writing this kind of history is fraught with political problems, which some have speculated may have led to a sudden paroxysm of Chinese anxiety about mounting the "Silk Road" exhibition in Philadelphia. The modern nation-state, and the ethnic identities that underlie its coherence, are an incredibly recent overlay on the migrations, conflicts, trade patterns and confusion that define the vast majority of human history. Yet ancient treasures are invariably used to legitimize governments and ethnic groups, no matter how tenuous the connection between past and present.

The material on display in Philadelphia is especially fraught for the Chinese government, which may explain why the wall texts accompanying the objects, which the museum was required to use by agreement, are often bland to the point of meaninglessness.

"This mask was made from fine sandstone," reads the description of a mask from the 10th to 13th centuries B.C. "The round eyes are sunken and have holes drilled in them for the pupils." If put on display at an art gallery in New York or Paris, it would baffle and thrill collectors: a Caucasian face that looks like the masterwork of a great primitivist sculptor, circa 1910.

Other descriptions feel political: "This document indicates that the central government decrees of the Tang dynasty were effectively carried out," says the text accompanying a travel permit issued during the same period as the sandstone mask.

Does this reticence have anything to do with the objects' provenance?

Geographically, they come from an extremely arid desert in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China, where temperatures can range from 40 degrees below zero in winter to more than 100 in the summer. The Uighurs have troubled the authoritarian Chinese government with demands for greater autonomy or independence, which have been met with brutal crackdowns as recently as 2009. It remains a restive province.

It doesn't help that mummies such as the Beauty of Xiaohe don't look Chinese. With cascades of long, thick auburn hair and the small, pointed nose that Michael Jackson pursued for a lifetime, the Beauty suggests cultural migrations from the West deep into the heart of what the Chinese think of as their own "Western Regions." As Spencer Wells, a geneticist and anthropologist at the National Geographic Society writes in a catalogue essay, it is "as though a group of Celts or Vikings had been mysteriously transported into the middle of a Chinese desert."

Although China has flooded the world with top scientists in almost every field, archaeology there (as in many Western countries) remains deeply intertwined with politics. While Chinese regional officials had approved the exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania - catalogue materials had been circulated and clearly stated that the exhibition would last into June - the Penn Museum is a much more prominent and sophisticated venue than the two previous stops the Beauty made on her way to the East Coast.

The dispute also raises a deeper question about what role the Chinese will play in an evolving historical understanding that crosses political and ethnic borders. Although there has been some DNA testing on the mummies, allowing greater physical access to them could yield extraordinary new insight into where they came from.

"If you could bring the whole paraphernalia of modern science, like DNA, to bear on this, you would blow open so many old chestnuts," Hodges says. He also says that, while in the 1990s the Chinese found the material discovered in the Tarim Basin, especially that which testified to a far greater presence in the region, "a little difficult to take," he believes they will come along.

"As they come to terms with the literature, they will realize they are holding majestic material," he says. "They can participate in prehistory."

For professor Mair, who first encountered the mummies while visiting a museum in Urumqi in 1988, greater physical access to the mummies and the textiles would solve such problems as what they ate, how they died and where their animals came from. He dreams of what could be learned through X-rays, MRI scans and more extensive DNA testing. But it's a slow process working through the political and bureaucratic barriers that Western scientists encounter in China.

"I think they understand the value, but there are certain kinds of hang-ups that prevent the Chinese from collaborative research," he says.

The political turmoil in the Arab world over the past month - which may also have contributed to the Chinese nervousness about this exhibition, given the authoritarian nature of the Chinese government and its uncomfortable relation with the Uighur minority - reminds us of the uncomfortable dichotomy between narrative history (which is obsessively interested in authority figures, emperors, kings, generals and the like) and the history of ordinary people (who strive for survival and, if they're lucky, dignity).

Morally, the challenge of exhibitions such as "Secrets of the Silk Road" is their demand that we care, across the millennia, about people for whom there are essentially no narratives. The reliance of contemporary museums on storytelling has become so pervasive that it is bracing to see an institution attempt to mount an exhibition without that now-cliched crutch. It's also refreshing.

The silence of many of these objects, including the Beauty, and the basic view that many others give into ordinary life, forces the viewer to think in terms that approximate actual anthropological and archaeological thinking. There is nothing "iconic" about anything in the show, no connections with famous personages and often very little information about entire societies, such as the Tocharians, who lived at the easternmost limits of where Indo-European languages - the root of tongues as diverse as Russian, English and Hindi - have been spoken. Rather than fit these objects into a simple historical narrative and move on - this the desk at which Thomas Jefferson sat - the visitor must make do with the mute object and accept the grand vistas of what isn't and may never be known.

The museum has done an excellent job of providing the best access to understanding it can. Microscopes and fabric swatches give a rough understanding of how scholars trace connections between textiles and the people who made them. The world of difference between the delicate lattice of silk and the rough zigzag of a woolen weave gives a powerful, almost tactile sense of the different possibilities life afforded the people who lived in and passed through this region. Maps and an elaborate timeline painted on the wall give broader context. The almost infuriatingly dry captions have been supplemented with recordings available on hand-held listening devices, which give a little bit more insight.

The title of the exhibition, "Secrets of the Silk Road," is unfortunate. There are no secrets here, just unknowns. And the Silk Road, which has become a trendy name for all kinds of cross-cultural kumbaya, wasn't even in operation until almost 2,000 years after the Beauty of Xiaohe went to her sandy grave. Even so, it is remarkably moving to see how much testimony about the squalid lives of anonymous people this region has left us. A painting of two chubby boys, with fat, dimpled arms, dressed in brightly striped overalls, playing with a small dog, may say more about life than all the begats of the Old Testament or the endless list of ships and princes in "The Iliad." We just don't know their names.

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