Charlotte exhibits offers look at mummies from around the globe

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 18, 2011

CHARLOTTE — It’s not often you go to a museum exhibit and see a “statement of ethics” posted before you enter. But the producers of the Mummies of the World exhibit at Discovery Place want you to know that this is a somber, respectful exhibit. It’s not flashy or sexy, and if you forget, the lighting and sober background music will remind you.
The much-anticipated exhibit — billed as the largest collection of mummies ever assembled — opened in Los Angeles last summer and then moved to Philadelphia, with about half a million visitors seeing it in those cities. It recently opened at Discovery Place and will remain in Charlotte through April 8.
Advance ticket sales were reportedly more than three times ahead of sales for BodyWorlds in 2007, which was also a hugely popular exhibit.
Teaming with the mummies are interactive exhibits that educate visitors and dispel myths about mummies.
One thing exhibit-goers might find surprising is that mummification can occur through natural preservation processes as well as intentional practices such as those used by the ancient Egyptians. A significant number of the specimens in this exhibit are naturally preserved, including the body of a South American woman mummified in the dry desert air, her long hair intact and tattoos still visible on her face and chest.
One of the exhibit’s most popular attractions is the Detmold Child from Peru, dating 3,000 years before King Tut. The chubby cheeks of an infant are still in evidence, which is unexpected, somehow, and a little disconcerting.
Visitors will be fascinated and possibly a bit repulsed to learn that Merck made powdered mummy available to patients in Germany as late as 1924. On display is a vial of the stuff and a page from a Merck catalogue listing “Mumia vera aegyptic” — real Egyptian mummy.
The exhibit — which includes the severed foot of an Egyptian mummy — is a reminder of the wild and wooly time when tombs were plundered by the greedy and unscruluplous who had no qualms about hacking off body parts to sell to equally unscrupulous collectors for a quick payday.
Dr. Heather Gill-Frerking, the scientific research curator for the Germany Mummy Project, was on hand for the exhibit’s opening. When I asked which specimen most intrigued her, she walked me over to a mummy of a South American woman with a child tucked under her head and another resting on her abdomen.
“It fascinates me,” she said.
Researchers have determined that the child on her belly is dated to 300 years after the woman.
So the question, Gill-Frerking asks, is why? Did a collector choose to display them that way? Or did the placement happen before a collector was involved?
We do know, she says, that the child on her belly has a facial tumor that started in his eye and that he was malnourished, possibly as a result of the growth making it difficult for him to eat.
The child tucked underneath the female almost seems to be used as a pillow. That placement is also baffling, she said.
Researchers are in the process of learning more about this particular woman, Gill-Frerking said, by testing her hair, which will give them information about the type of diet she ate. That can yield valuable information about where she lived.
“There’s so much work yet to be done,” she said.
Apparently, researchers are scratching their heads over how to unravel the mysteries behind many of the specimens. A mummy of a howler monkey, for example, has been decorated at some point with a skirt of feathers. Researchers have no idea when that happened — or why. Was it just for fun?
Gill-Frerking points out that we often can’t know for certain exactly where and in what circumstances mummies were found. Provenance is frequently clouded by the fact that in years past, archeology and anthropology methods were much less meticulous.
I share with Frerking that one of my favorites —though it doesn’t sound particularly fascinating — is a fish that was mummified naturally. She, too, is charmed by it, and for the same reasons I am.
“It’s so intact,” she says. “It hasn’t been distorted.”
But it’s not just that. For me, if not for Gill-Frerking, this perky little mummy-fish offers a bit of a break from the vacant stares of the human bodies, the fleeting thoughts of zombies that float into my mind unbidden as I wander through all these remains. The fish is not a symbol or a reminder of my mortality. It is not a “memento mori.”
The origins of the exhibit are as intriguing as the exhibit itself. Seven years ago, during a renovation at the Reiss-Engelhorn Museums in Mannheim Germany, a crate was discovered in a vault beneath the museum. When a researcher opened it up, he discovered the cache of mummies.
The museum had bought the collection in 1917 from the heirs of artist Gabriel von Max, and the mummies were believed to have disappeared during or after the chaos of World War II. The rediscovered collection, so long neglected, became the focus of what has come to be known as German Mummy Project, which is ongoing.
You may leave the exhibit as I did with more questions than answers, but then again, that seems to be how the researchers feel as well.
Bring the kids, by all means, but you may want to prepare them a bit for what they’re going to see.