Following controversy, mummies at Penn Museum remain objects of mystery

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 11:12 PM

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, Wang 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."

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