We are fascinated by death as long as it doesn't get too close. You come face to face with bodies at "Mummies of the World" at the Museum of Science and Industry and you may find that proximity uncomfortable, but you will be fascinated.
The exhibition's organizers have made great efforts to avoid sensationalism and emphasize science with wall labels and interactive displays explaining the particulars of mummification and, whenever possible, the particulars of the bodies on display. Dim lighting and soft music also add to the dignified atmosphere.
Seeing photographs of the mummies, as you do on these pages, is a very different experience from seeing them in the context of the show. I wasn't keen on spending several hours with dead people and animals but found myself thoroughly engaged and not at all disturbed as I studied them and enjoyed accompanying displays.
You're introduced gently to the mummies. After a three-minute optional (you should opt for it) introductory video, you enter a small gallery containing a mummified Egyptian child wrapped in linen that reveals only general contours. From there, you proceed to a larger gallery where an Argentinian howler monkey bedecked in a cowl and cape of feathers greets you and other animals hold court.
This part of the show gives us the basics of the mummification process. Turns out, it happens naturally all the time if environmental conditions are right.
A large case contains six examples: a fish mummified by salt; a dog caught in a bog; a hare preserved in ice; a jackal trapped in a cave; a lizard dried out in a desert; and a cat found in the cool attic of an old building. The decomposition of the bodies was halted at some point because they were deprived of the things that break them down, usually heat, oxygen or humidity. A large world map on one wall has push buttons that illuminate areas with ideal conditions for natural mummification. Florida is not one of those places; we're too hot and humid.
We learn a lot more mummy facts in the gallery. Mummification doesn't take that long; a hyena is less than 50 years old, for example. The word "mummy" comes from mumiya, the Arabic word for bitumen, a dark, resiny material that was a common remedy in the Middle East for things like broken bones. When Arabs invaded Egypt several thousand years ago and found bodies preserved with a coating of resin that resembled mumiya, that's what they called the bodies. It got shortened to mummy.
An interactive kiosk introduces us to the "tool kit" that gives us information about mummies such as X-rays, CT scans and DNA analysis, their uses explored more thoroughly in later interactives. Panels of leather and rubber simulate how bodies feel when mummified under different conditions.
Another gallery is devoted to artificial mummification in Egypt. Many of us have seen exhibitions of Egyptian antiquities — the most recent one at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg — which usually focus on objects found in tombs. There are displays of such things along with a number of mummies. Some remain in their wrappings. Others are only partial bodies — heads, for example. They illustrate the 18th and 19th century business in which mummies were routinely sold whole or in part to European and American tourists.
The most spectacular mummy lies in his sarcophagus, which is displayed on three tiers. The remains of Nes-pa-qa-shuti, a priest, rest on the middle one and the painted lid on the upper one, much higher than eye level so the decoration of it is almost impossible to see. That's one of my few quibbles with the exhibition's design.
More interactives give us more details. One scrolls us through several pages of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a document that detailed the rituals, chants and prayers needed to pass from death to eternal life. Another demonstrates how three-dimensional CT scans of some of the bodies in the show reveal details about them without invasive examinations.
That same benefit is used in another interactive kiosk in a gallery devoted to South American mummies. A baby is curled up, still partly wrapped in the cloth used to bury him or her almost 6,500 years ago, at least 1,000 years before the first dynasty of ancient Egypt. Scans reveal a heart defect and pulmonary infection, which were probably the cause of death. They also reveal the presence of a small amulet tucked inside the child's burial wraps. It remains with the baby, but a reproduction of it is on display next to the mummy. Another secret treasure that scans have found without disturbing the body are baby teeth clutched in the hands of a pre-Columbian female mummy. No answers for why they're there.
Stressed throughout this show is the research-based purpose the mummies serve and the ongoing scientific inquiry of a group of scientists who work with an organization called the German Mummy Project. So we learn that the last meal of a woman mummified in a Netherlands bog during the second or third century was a multigrain porridge with blackberries, which also suggests that she died in late summer or early autumn when they were in season.
The final galleries contain more recent mummies whose identities are known, all preserved by accident. Seventeenth century nobleman Baron von Holz's body survived because of the cool, dry conditions of the castle vault in which he was interred, wearing a new pair of fine leather boots.
Another discovery of accidental mummification is something of a mystery. In 1994, 265 coffins were discovered stacked in a crypt during renovations of a Dominican church in Vac, Hungary, dating from the 18th century to the early 19th century. The cold, dry air of the room and the oil from pine shavings that lined the coffins preserved the bodies inside, including the Orlovits family, Michael, Veronica and their young son Johannes, who are in this show.
They're finely dressed (not in their original clothes) and information included from village records tells us a little about them. Scientists found that Veronica, for example, died of tuberculosis, which was epidemic in Europe at that time. It also probably took Johannes and many others.
There seems to be nothing nefarious about the secret crypt; it was simply behind a door that was boarded over at some point. The coffins were all hand-painted with details reflecting their contents, and preserved along with the bodies were personal items such as rosaries. (Some of the reportedly beautiful coffins are displayed in Vac; I wish one could have been acquired for this show.) But no one seems to know why so many townspeople were forgotten.
This exhibition requires at least 45 minutes; I spent two hours in it reading the labels and playing with the interactive displays. I think the biggest issue with young children is not that the mummies will be scary but that much of the show will be over their heads. School-age kids, though, will probably be very engaged, and seeing it as a family will generate a lot of dinner-table conversations.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.