Mummies are people, too.
That’s the underlying message of “Mummies of the World: The Exhibition”, which opened recently at the Orlando Science Center in Florida, the United States. Among the displays are dozens of mummified bodies – human and animal – which date back thousands of years. Although the first sight is an elaborate Egyptian sarcophagus, the golden casing most associated with mummies in pop culture, the exhibit includes specimens from around the world. Some are from the wrapped-tightly camp, created intentionally by their survivors. Others are more accidental, transformed into mummies by weather or extraordinary burial conditions.
To be considered a mummy, the body must have kept some of its soft tissue, such as skin or muscles, according the American Exhibitions Inc, producer of “Mummies of the World”. In mummification, the natural decaying process is derailed, usually from a lack of moisture or oxygen.
There’s a lot of history involved in these cases, but the exhibition also covers the modern-day science element. Since 1977, CT scans have been used to examine mummies without unwrapping them or using invasive techniques. Using data from these exams, we can now know things such as cause of death, their last meals and if they, perhaps, walked with a limp.
These details are posted near the mummies and help, well, bring the characters back to life.
The bodies are arranged simply and individually in temperature- and humidity-controlled chambers. Unlike the famed “Bodies” exhibitions, the mummies are not arranged in active poses. The majority are flat on their backs as if looking towards the heavens.
Among the displays is Baron von Holz, who died in the early 1600s. He has his boots on. He was found in a family crypt beneath a church. He and four other bodies were unearthed in 1806. The scans of the baron’s mummy revealed no cause of death, but did discover that he had 207 bones — one more bone that most people. He had an extra vertebra in the lower back.
Accompanying him in the crypt and in the exhibition is Baroness Schenck von Geiern, who had severe curvature of the spine, which might have been caused by malnutrition during the Thirty Years’ War, researchers say.
Elsewhere in the exhibit are three members of the Orlovits family, who were found in a crypt near Budapest, Hungary, in 1994. Analysis shows that the mum, Veronica, had severe tuberculosis. In the exhibit, she is next to her husband, Michael, and infant son, Johannes. The crypt contained 265 mummified bodies. The deaths of about half of those individuals were recorded in church records.
“Mummies of the World” is set up in the large hall on the second level of Orlando Science Center. Its design is sombre and dark, and otherworldly but soft music helps maintain a reverent tone. The exhibition is set up in segments, which encourages exploration. It also discourages children from carousing among the corpses.
There are a few hands-on displays, such as a light-up board of where mummies have been discovered globally. There’s also a tactile demonstration called “What do mummies feel like?” (If the mummy has been in a bog, the texture is like “tanned leather”, it says.)
Along the way, there are fascinating details, such as a tattoo of the coat of arms for Pope Pius II and a cat mummy. “Animals were mummified as food for the dead,” the display reads.
But the ick factor is relatively low. I found myself wondering about their lives and the weird circumstances that have them, centuries later, visiting Orlando. I did swallow hard at the sight of young bodies – some with “artificial cranial modification” or with organs exposed following an autopsy.
Among the non-mummy elements are shrunken heads (and cheap knock-offs), charms and disembodied hands and feet that were, at one point, considered souvenirs. That’s a practice I’m happy not to see on International Drive.
“Mummies of the World” is included in Orlando Science Center admission. It’s open daily and will be in town through Nov 29. – Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Services