A first look at the new 'Mummies' at the Field Museum
There are many things the new "Mummies" exhibition at the Field Museum provides in addition to an opportunity to stroll among the ancient, unburied dead.
It lets you peer inside the cloth wraps, and even inside the bodies inside the wraps, thanks to the CT scan technology at the core of an exhibit that manages to feel both reverential and cutting-edge. This exploratory technique is so much more archaeology-friendly, so much less destructive, than the old method of simply unwrapping mummies.
To prove the point, the exhibition displays a mummified man from about 650 B.C., who was peeled open a century ago for science and — there's no delicate way to put this — whose head came off. Nearby is a tableau that could have spared that fellow the indignity, a mummy model poised on the edge of a GE-branded CT scanner, ancient Egypt meeting modern medicine, referral not required.
The show, opening Friday, is part of a long tradition of mummy love at the Field, which did blockbuster numbers with a King Tut show in 1977 and a Tutankhamun reprise in 2006.
What explains the eternal allure of the swaddled dead?
"You can relate to it, just in a bodily way," said Janet Hong, the museum's project manager for exhibitions. "It's sort of a natural curiosity to want to know what's inside."
"It's the degree to which you can identify an individual," said museum conservator JP Brown, who got this exhibition started by attending the big annual radiological conference at McCormick Place almost a decade ago. "I asked a bunch of people, 'What's the best way to scan a mummy?' " he recalled Tuesday, surrounded by answers to that question.
Also drawing people to mummies, Brown said, is "just the quality of the workmanship. And it speaks to the value of someone's life and also to the importance of honoring the dead."
Even as they are being probed for truths here, the dead still feel honored. The galleries are appropriately somber, the displays making glorious use of vintage wood-and-glass museum cases, themselves prized artifacts.
But the exhibition is punctuated by static, lighted screens that display the computerized tomography scan results — that mummy, for instance, was a teenager: no wisdom teeth — and by touch screens that demand your time. If you've shrugged your shoulders at past examples of museum "interactives," a buzzword that too often has signified a pushed button producing a pedestrian result, start poking around on these desktop-sized light tables. A slider, for instance, exposes the pictured mummy as you move your finger to the right, taking it from inscrutable bundle to person buried with meaningful objects to a skeleton. Now spin it around to see a view from the back. It's spectacular and, fittingly, it gets broadcast above you, onto an even bigger screen.
The show, developed entirely in house from the Field's mummy collection, the largest in the U.S., delivers a look at mummified animals, from a baboon to a young gazelle to a baby crocodile. There is, literally, a cat scan. If you're paying attention to the wall cards, you'll learn that the Egyptians raised animals explicitly for the purpose of mummifying them, part of the expected afterlife offerings to the gods.
It teaches you that mummies weren't just an Egyptian thing. A substantial portion of space is devoted to the earlier, Peruvian mummy tradition, less ornate than its Egyptian counterpart but no less vital to its practitioners' sense of a proper transition to the beyond.
Instead of being put to rest stretched out, like the Egyptian mummies, Peruvian ones were typically bundled up, almost in a fetal position. The mummy sacs were then decorated with false heads, which look a little like homemade dolls.
Peruvian mummification began in about 7000 B.C., Egyptian in 5500. Peruvians originally would remove and reattach the dead person's skin, although they later stopped this practice; the Egyptians developed a preservation process that included removing the internal organs and either putting them into the body cavity or in jars nearby.
Peruvians buried their mummies in accessible underground pits, while Egyptians protected theirs in wood coffins, stone sarcophagi and, sometimes, sealed tombs. "Mummies" re-creates, at life size, samples of a burial pit and a tomb, and it includes multiple examples of the wooden coffins, typically decorated with hieroglyphic writing. One coffin is shown with the joinery exposed: It's mortise-and-tenon, woodworkers will note.
And while the Peruvians went with simple head representations, the Egyptians used masks so people's senses would be intact in the next world, and they were often gold, a color that represented divinity. Most stunning is the mummy labeled "The Gilded Lady." Her drab wrappings are topped by a vibrant golden face. Nearby, the French artist Elisabeth Daynes, who has a full-sized Neanderthal man elsewhere in the museum, has used scan results to make a bust suggesting what this woman looked like in life.
"Mummies," though, also shows the many commonalities between the two cultures' posthumous practices. Among the most striking of the CT findings are the child enshrouded in a bundle previously thought to contain only an adult and the similarity among small figures wrapped with Egyptian and Peruvian dead.
What the show doesn't explain is the fascinating story of how the exhibit came about, seemingly as close to accidental as things get in the careful world of museum presentation.
After Brown got his answers about how to scan mummies, Field scientists put many of the museum's specimens through a mobile CT machine, on loan and set up in an employee parking lot. The images so impressed exhibition staff members that they quickly developed a sort of pop-up show in 2012.
Attendance figures for "Opening the Vaults: Mummies" proved King Tut wasn't the only man of the cloth who could draw a crowd: 165,000 came during its two-month run, an official said this week. So the museum expanded the concept — fleshed it out, as it were — and turned it into a traveling exhibition, and it made four stops across North America, most recently winning raves at New York's American Museum of Natural History.
"Mummies Take Manhattan," was the headline in the New Yorker.
Now it is back for its first full showing here and its final stop. "Mummies" could surely continue to fascinate on the road, and to bolster the museum's bottom line, but these objects are profoundly fragile, and curators have deemed their exposure time enough.
The preparations for a mummy's afterlife were elaborate; some were laid down with servant figurines for eternal assistance, some with vessels of beer for refreshment. But when the exhibition ends next April, these 14 mummies will have had a posthumous existence, as science educators and, in a sense, road-show entertainers, for which their creators could never have planned.
Note: This is an expanded version of an article originally published March 13.
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