Many people will have an instant reaction to hearing about the new Maryland Science Center exhibition “Mummies of the World”:
Wow, cool! Whoa, neat!
But when some visitors first see the 150-piece traveling collection of mummies and mummy artifacts from around the globe, which is making its ninth and final national stop in Baltimore, the reaction might change:
Wow, dead people. Whoa, creepy.
Wait, are those tattoos?
There is a primal resonance visitors feel upon entering the dimly lighted, six-gallery exhibition of naturally and intentionally mummified bodies — an intimacy with death that can feel unsettling. It begins just past the entrance, when you come face to face with a mummy child encased in glass. And it’s a tingly disquiet that crawls your spine as you make your way from one mummy to the next.
“The human body naturally decomposes, but here we are with people or animals that didn’t follow those natural processes,” says Heather Gill-Frerking, director of science and education for “Mummies of the World.” “There was an intervention either from the environment or culture that helped them survive for centuries or millennia, and many will survive long after you and I are gone.”
The exhibition, which kicked off in Los Angeles in 2010, features items from 21 museums in seven mostly European countries. The mummies hail from South America, Europe, Asia, Oceania and Egypt, and they include men of high status, women with children, a cat, a rat, a boxfish and a lizard. There’s an Argentine howler monkey mummified in a feathered skirt and headdress for reasons unknown. The artifacts include amulets, scarabs, Canopic jars with animal heads, and, of course, bandages, rolls of bandages. It’s a scene straight out of Saturday night “Creature Features.”
In many ways, we should be accustomed to these images. Popular culture is fascinated with thoughts of the dead, the undead and the half-dead among us. Yet actual death remains a cultural taboo. Typically, we layer the dead. We put wooden coffins, six feet of earth, vaults and tombstones of stone, marble and cement between us and them. But mummies are wrapped only in bandages, or the clothes they died in. It is death at eye level. So close you can make out the sinew of their thighs and the dirt under their nails.
They were real people with real lives, says Marcus Corwin, who heads American Exhibitions, which produced and tours the exhibition. There are ethical considerations — concessions that have to be made to human dignity and cultural integrity. “Exhibiting human remains is serious business,” he says. “You don’t do it lightly.”
You do it by focusing on stories. Some told by science. Most of the mummies have undergone computer tomography scanning, which provides tiny “slices” of bone and tissue information helpful in determining age and cause of death. The Peruvian 8- to 10-month-old “Detmold Child,” which dates back 6,500 years, is an exhibition highlight. It is shrouded and still has skin, toenails, eyelashes and hair. but The child is thought to have had a heart defect and a pulmonary infection.
Other stories are told by the records found with the bodies. The Orlovits family — Michael, Veronica, and 1-year-old Johannes — perished in a tuberculosis outbreak that wiped out their 18th-century Hungarian town. They were among 250 people buried in a church crypt, where they mummified.
The Egyptians also mummified animals — falcons, fish and a baby crocodile are displayed. Cats that were ritually embalmed using salt and resins often had detailed faces painted on their wrappings. Naturally occurring animal mummies — preserved in dry air, caves, ice and bogs — include a jackal, a lizard, a boxfish and a dog. Many of these date back hundreds and thousands of years. A mummified rat, found in an office building in Mannheim, Germany, is more recent.
The folded or extended or crouched South American mummies include a woman with tattoos on her face and each breast, and another woman in a fetal curl with a child under her head, and one across her belly, perhaps added hundreds of years later.
Gill-Frerking says she’s been working with mummies for years, sometimes alone, in isolated places. “I treat them as people, with respect. I talk to them by name,” just as you would any other medical patient, she says.
Still, should one ever sit up and try to go all ancient and attitudinal on her, she says she could handle it. The mummies weigh 40 to 50 pounds. “They are dried out and don’t have brains, and if they came back to life, I’m pretty sure I could take them,” she says.