January 4th, 2011

Milwaukee Public Museum “Mummies of the World”

On December 31st, we went to the Milwaukee Public Museum for the travelling exhibit, “Mummies of the World,” which is one of the largest exhibits of its type, including 45 mummies and 95 artifacts from 15 museums in seven countries. I must note that this exhibition, while fascinating, substantially stretches the definition of “mummy” as I had understood it. There is the commonly understood Egyptian mummy, the corpse of a human or animal intentionally subjected to the famous embalming and wrapping process. Then there are “mummified” bodies, such as the South American bodies retrieved from high caves that have been essentially freeze-dried, but on my own I would not have classified a bog-burial body as a “mummy” however well preserved it was. However, having this wide variety of the intentionally or unintentionally preserved dead gives a really interesting look at the burial customs of different cultures.

The exhibition stresses that these are the bodies of real people and should be treated with respect and dignity, which was by and large the case, although with some bemusing inequities. Unwrapped Egyptian mummies are displayed in their entirety, whereas the bodies of 17th Century European nobility (who still have living relatives) have their genital areas modestly draped. (I also found it rather remarkable that, of two male Egyptian specimens, one had a very obvious and prominent phallus, whereas the other’s genitalia had withered away along with the rest of the soft tissue. Two different sets of embalmers, obviously. One wonders if they had a menu of options, and the first man, identified as a “high status” mummy, could afford the deluxe job?)

One also can’t help but contrast this exhibit with the Gunther Hagen “Bodies” exhibit from a year or so ago, which was brightly lit and of course had the figures posed in the dynamic style for which he is famous. The “Mummies” exhibit had the bodies shown as they were found, in attitudes of repose, with lower lighting and sonorous background music, which made it more like visiting the funeral parlor of some very distant relative.
Far and away, the best preserved bodies in the exhibit are those from the Andean caves, which are truly remarkable, with intact though faded hair, and fabric wrappings some still showing bright colors. One expects that, had the Egyptians seen what could be done merely by deposition of the body in a high, cold, cave, there would have been much gnashing of teeth; but perhaps it is just as well they did not. Picture some Pharaoh trying to build an artificial mountain in order to get cold storage? Or perhaps a caravan route to the Mountains of the Moon or Mount Ararat might have evolved?

Other observations: Evidently, the natural color of a desiccated human body is a light grayish brown, which makes a number of the bodies look as though carved from driftwood. Exceptions are the bitumen-treated Egyptian bodies and the bog-burial, both of which are a dull black in color.

I don’t find mummies and skeletons particularly creepy, so was able to enjoy the exhibit, peering closely at the exhibits, and doing such things as marveling at the sculptural cheekbones of the Egyptian head that is used in the promotional material. Only one did I find rather disturbing, and that was the so-called “Detmold child.”

The Detmold child (named for the museum that owns it) is one of the South Americans, and, at 6500 years of age, believed to be the oldest extant mummy in the world. It is the body of an infant, estimated to have died at 10 months old. Seated in the elbows-on-knees posture typical of Andean burials, it has lost surprisingly little bulk, and could be taken for an Incan idol. Most unsettling, it appears to still have visible eyeballs of a sort, (picture, along with others from the exhibit, can be seen here: http://www.spluch.com/2010/07/oldest-mummy.html) which seems most unnatural compared with the decently empty sockets or shrunken lids all the others have. Other people didn’t seem to be visibly affected, but I did notice that there weren’t people clustered around peering at it as there were with most of the others, so perhaps something uncanny about this particular mummy did communicate itself to the visitors--.

On the day we were there, the exhibition was very well attended and both adults and children seemed to be taking it in with good attention and absorption. In addition to the actual exhibits, there are a number of multimedia presentations available, showing how the mummies have been studied by x-ray, CT scan, DNA analysis, carbon-dating, and other methods.

Kudos to the German Mummy Project, a group of experts from 15 European institutions based at the Reiss-Engelhorn Museums in Mannheim, Germany, for assembling this exhibition. The exhibit continues in Milwaukee through May 30, 2011. An additional ticket charge is required for this exhibit, and admission is timed, so advance ticket purchase is recommended. Tickets can be purchased on line here: http://www.mpm.edu/mummies/visit/

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