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Mummy madness: Museum exhibits lure crowds

Image: "Eduardo" mummy
"Eduardo," from the Accidental Mummies of Guanajuato exhibit, is currently on display at the Detroit Science Center.

Zombies may be trendy right now, but the madness for mummies is eternal.

“They’re creepy and they’re cool,” says Adam Woog, a Seattle author who wrote a book about mummies for the middle-school market. “Everyone knows about Egyptian mummies, but mummified people have been discovered in deserts, on icy mountains, in bogs and in lots of other places. So mummies are also very mysterious.”

Whether you find them mysterious, macabre or just plain mesmerizing, “Mummies sell tickets,” explains William Jamieson, a Toronto-based dealer and collector of ancient and tribal artifacts. He’s sold mummies (and shrunken heads) to museums and attractions around the world. During the late 1800s and early 1900s in North America, he says, “you couldn’t even really call yourself a museum unless you had a mummy.”

Dinosaurs may be today’s museum “must have,” but mummies are still clearly a major attraction — especially if they’re hanging around in multiples. Just a few weeks into its new Mummies of the World exhibit featuring more than 45 mummies from around the world, the California Science Center in Los Angeles has announced extended weekend hours to accommodate mummy fans.

Have you been meaning to meet some mummies? Then consider adding these museums and attractions to your travel plans. 

A cat mummy from the British Museum.

Get wrapped up in mummies
Both kids and adults visiting London’s vast British Museum usually make a beeline for Rooms 62-64. One of the world’s largest collection of Egyptian mummies and their cases, or coffins, is displayed here along with funerary masks, mummified cats, fish and other animals, as well as other objects once buried with and associated with the dead. The largest crowds are usually gathered around “Ginger,” a naturally preserved mummy found with tools, food vessels and even some remaining red hair, and around an early basket coffin containing a skeleton.

On exhibit at Mexico's Mummy Museum of Guanajuato (Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato) are more than 100 naturally preserved mummies exhumed from a municipal cemetery between 1865 and 1989. The mummies are displayed in themed groupings that include baby mummies (including what may be the world’s smallest mummy), mummies still dressed in complete burial outfits, and the mummies of people whose lives clearly ended tragically.

Thirty-six mummies from the Guanajuato museum’s collection are now part of an exhibit scheduled to tour the United States through 2012. Called the “Accidental Mummies of Guanajuato,” the exhibition closed its run at the Detroit Science Center in May. The next stop on the tour should be announced shortly. 

Mummies and coffins in the Egyptian gallery at the Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta.

In Atlanta, the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University displays some of the 10 coffins and nine mummies it purchased from Canada’s Niagara Falls Museum, which began exhibiting Egyptian mummies in the 1850s and went out of business in the 1990s. “Ulysses S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and P.T. Barnum saw those mummies,” says Peter Lacovara, curator of the Michael C. Carlos Museum, “And they are some of the earliest mummies exhibited outside of Egypt. The coffins that go with them are beautiful as well and tell us a lot about early Egyptian art.”

Of special interest, says Lacovara, is the coffin of Tahat (short for Tanakhtnet.) “It’s one of the most beautiful coffins. But it appears that the original owner was dumped out of the coffin and her name erased so the coffin could be reused.” In addition to three or four mummies in their own coffins, the museum currently displays animal mummies, including a crocodile, a cat and a hawk, and coffins created for a lizard, an ibis, a snake and a shrew.

Multiple mummies are also on display at the San Diego Museum of Man. In addition to replicas of “Bog Bodies” from Denmark and “Chinchorro Mummies” from coastal Chile and Southern Peru, the museum displays two authentic Egyptian mummies on loan from the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, five naturally mummified bodies from Peru (four are children; the fifth is a young woman) and a female mummy from Mexico who was seven to eight months pregnant at the time of death.

One of four mummified children displayed at the San Diego Museum of Man.

Like the mummies displayed at the British Museum and elsewhere, many of the mummies at the San Diego Museum of Man have undergone CT scans and X-rays and are now displayed alongside videos, artifacts and other materials that provide context for the display of human remains while offering a view of the mummies from the inside out.

Roaming mummies
The California Science Center in Los Angeles doesn’t have any mummies in its own collection, but it is currently partnering with 20 other museums from around the world to exhibit the mummies (or mummified body parts) of 45 humans and animals, along with about 100 mummy-related artifacts from South America, Europe, Asia, Oceania And Egypt.

“The Mummies of the World exhibit focuses on the scientific research and analysis being done on these mummies,” says the Science Center’s Diane Perlov, but it’s clearly the Peruvian child mummy dating to 3,000 years before King Tut, the 18th century mummified family (a son and his parents) and the other “Ew-I-can’t-look-but-I-can’t-look-away” mummies that people are lining up to see. The exhibit will stay in Los Angeles through November and then move on to Milwaukee, where the mummies will be on display through May 2011.