Egyptian Mummies: Exploring Ancient Lives

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Enjoy reading!

Hi, my name is Ziggy Potts and, as a fellow Museum and Heritage Studies student, Rebecca has kindly allowed me to review the new Egyptian Mummies exhibition currently on at the Powerhouse Museum. Whilst this is, in no ways does this review address all aspects, it reflects some of the things that made an impression on me and my overall experience.

The new summer blockbuster Egyptian Mummies exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum is a collaborative effort with the British Museum. It showcases 6 mummies from the British Museum collection, using new scientific research methodologies to discover more about the lives of these people, their health and the processes of mummification. Each of the showcased mummies has been carefully chosen in order to reveal various aspects of the mummification process, religious belief and family life.

Of the six displayed only two, Tamut and the young child from Hawara, have been previously displayed as part of the Ancient lives, new discoveries exhibition at the British Museum from 2014 to 2015. Whereas previously, only x-rays and physical unwrapping of mummies could be used to learn more about their lives, new CT scans allow for individual profiles to be developed, including their height, likely age, geographic area, when they lived and their social standing. Overall, these profiles not only shed light on the evolution of the process of mummification but also the various roles each god had in the process. For instance, whilst Anubis is the most important funerary god, Bes was a household god responsible for protecting a family from evil spirits and Taweret in protecting women in pregnancy and childbirth.

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The exhibition itself starts in a dark room where a short video is presented giving context to the exhibition, including the six mummies on display and the important discoveries new medical technology like CT scans have had on learning more about Ancient Egypt, the people, religion and way of life. From here, the layout is a mix between linear progression and open plan. You head down a dark corridor to a series of open plan rooms, with two or so areas dedicated to each individual. I found this layout to be quite useful, as each area focused on a specific part of each sarchophagus, be it the actual wrapped mummy, the inner coffin where the body was placed or the larger decorative sarcophagus itself. Around this focal point placed in the centre of the room, the walls showcased various funerary depictions, amulets, family life and the function and significance of a number of gods as part of these facets of life.

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Within each defined area, there were digital interactives with touch controls where the visitor could move their finger in a circular motion to rotate and unwrap a digital representation of the physical mummy on display. This gave more information for how the individual profile was developed, including their height, age based on fusion of bone, as well as any identifiable health issues. I found this especially interesting as I previously had no idea how widespread dental decay and abscesses were in Ancient Egypt.Another interesting point was learning (in a fair amount of detail considering the limitations of exhibition panels) how interconnected the actual processes of mummification were with religion and how the developed and changed through the centuries. For example, the incision made to remove the internal organs was often covered with a metal plate decorated with the eye of

Another interesting point was learning (in a fair amount of detail considering the limitations of exhibition panels) how interconnected the actual processes of mummification were with religion and how the developed and changed through the centuries. For example, the incision made to remove the internal organs was often covered with a metal plate decorated with the eye of wedjat, a symbol of protection and restoration to ensure the body remained whole for use in the afterlife. The removed organs, which included the stomach, intestines, liver and lungs were then placed in separate canopic jars capped with representations of the four sons of Horus; Imsety, Duamutef, Hapi, Qebehsenuef. This was done to magically protect the organs of the deceased so they could still make use of them in the afterlife. Into the Graeco-Roman period, however, the organs were increasingly kept in the bodies and the outer coffin decorations increasingly reflective of Roman culture, illustrating increasing Romanisation within Egypt.

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Similarly, the exhibition highlighted the use of the cartonnage from the 9th to 8th centuries BCE, as a cheaper alternative to wooden coffins. This was a highly decorative wrapping of plaster, linen and glue. Firstly, a mud and straw core was used as a mould, followed by a layer of plaster and several wrappings of linen. Another layer of plaster was then applied for decoration whilst, the mud and straw mould was removed via an opening in the back, through which the mummy was placed inside. Even though it does take a fair while to move throughout the exhibition (it took me 2 hours), the presented information was very comprehensive and, as I moved through the exhibition, reference to previous information not only reinforced but complemented what I had already read to create a comprehensive and self-reflexive learning experience.

Other technology such as Visible -induced Infrared Luminesence and Infrared Reflectography, both use light reflection to determine the dyes and paints used in decoration. This facilitated digital reconstruction of the various scenes depicted and thereby explain the varying religious significance of the depicted figures throughout and their function within the ancient Egyptian rituals of mummification. This can also be seen in the use of CT scan data to 3D print various amulets placed in and on the body, each then presented individually as to their significance within the process. For instance, a scarab amulet was placed over the chest and inscribed with a spell to prevent the owners heart from revealing misdeeds to the gods in the hall of judgement.

Overall, I found the exhibition highly informative with a layout that clearly divided the space between the 6 mummies with an important balance reached between the use of digital interactives and the information. The former added to but did not detract from the information or general experience.

One note though: If you don’t seek such an intense learning experience or do not have the time, the gift shop does offer a complete book on the exhibition, including all images presented in the exhibition with the accompanying information for only $30.

This post was written by Ziggy Potts. His email is: zpot4628@uni.sydney.edu.au.

A huge thanks to Ziggy for his interesting post on the Egyptian Mummies exhibition. I saw the exhibition a couple of days ago now and wanted to add my own thoughts which are below.

My two cents:

I saw the exhibition the other day so thought I’d add on to this post. I’m going to touch on two components of the exhibition: the smelling boxes and ethics of display. In England, earlier this year, we visited the Ashmolean to see their exhibition Storms, War and Shipwrecks: Treasures from the Sicilian Seas. It was a great display on sea voyages equipped with a smelling box. You opened a little door and guessed what you were smelling. This included wine, oil, and I can’t remember the other. Ancient Lives had a couple of similar interactives that complemented the digital components that Ziggy spoke about. As opposed to having each individual smell separate, they were lumped in together. Onion, herbs and spices all in the one box. I made the mistake of smelling the contents and leaving the station with a headache. Way too strong! Cool, but way too intense.

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Onto the ethics of display. It amazes me that the mummies are human remains yet are often not displayed with dignity and respect. Sure there are a whole raft of issues as to why, but it still saddens me. This exhibition was the first serious attempt at displaying mummies respectfully and still generating intrigue and mystery. The fact that each individual mummy, when known, is named and provided with a biography is fantastic!

In no way did this type of display wreck a traditional display of mummies. Sure, they were still on display and taken from their final burying point. However, the lessons they can teach and the insight they can share with the public on life in ancient Egypt is truly remarkable. Treating their remains as significant and not cramming them all into a room for people to gawk at is a valiant attempt at taking ethics seriously. According to Christine Quigley, in her work on Modern Mummies, people should first and foremost be aware that they are viewing human remains.

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2 comments

  1. What great insights by Ziggy, another great guest post 🙂 I really enjoy being able to hear and compare different experiences of an exhibition. I’m also fascinated by the ethics of the display of mummies, which I’m sad to say is something I’ve only recently considered. I’m so conflicted about their display in any capacity, but it’s great to hear this exhibitions has made some positive steps in the right direction.

    Liked by 1 person

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