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High-Tech Advances Reveal Mummy Secrets

  • Susan Logue

Mummies prove popular with museum visitors

Mummies seem to be all the rage in the United States these days. Not only are Americans flocking to see treasures from King Tut’s tomb, they are also finding mummies in other museums.

In 1932, movie audiences were introduced to “The Mummy” for the first time. Mummies have been a part of popular culture ever since, but Egyptologist Salima Ikram says the ancient culture has mesmerized people for thousands of years. “Even the Greeks and Romans were coming there as tourists.”

Ikram, who teaches at the American University in Cairo, helped curate the new “Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt” exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History here in Washington.

“I’m hoping that people will engage with ancient Egypt, not just as a bunch of dead people, but a bunch of people who were living just like you and I are.”

Mummies had been on display at the museum for decades, but for the past year, they were in storage. Curator Melinda Zeder says the public demanded their return. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond is the only US venue for an exhibit of artifacts from the British Museum that includes four mummies.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond is the only US venue for an exhibit of artifacts from the British Museum that includes four mummies.

“We had a real outpouring from our fans from across not only Washington, but the country, wanting to know when we were going to bring the mummies back.”

Now there are more mummies on display, and more information about how they lived and who they were in life, discovered in part from CT scans. The images reveal a wealth of information, says anthropologist Bruno Frohlich, who conducts scans in his lab.

“We can determine the age of death. We can determine the sex. And we can determine the strength and composition of bone tissue," he says. "That can help scientiests determine what the person was doing while alive.”

That technology is also at the heart of a new exhibit in Richmond, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. A 3D movie serves as an introduction to "Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb."

“Watching that movie was just unbelievable,” museum visitor Anne Martin says. “That we are able to get inside of the sarcophagus and coffins to see what these folks looked like and what they were buried with was really interesting.” Bruno Frohlich scans mummies in his lab at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

Bruno Frohlich scans mummies in his lab at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

The movie provides context for the more than 100 artifacts in the exhibit, all of which are on loan from the British Museum. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts director Alex Nyerges says the exhibit has been popular since it opened in November.

“The child in every one of us has been drawn to the exhibition. And of course, "Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb," how can you want to avoid that?”

Not one, but four mummies are in the exhibit, all of them in their original wrappings.

“That is one of the attractions of this exhibition,” Nyerges says. “You are in the presence of people who lived and breathed and walked this earth, 3000, to 3500 years ago.”

But that’s only part of the attraction for museum visitor Jack Barnes. “I am fascinated by the natural sciences, fascinated by the history of that part of the world, fascinated that these things last as long as they do.” The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has an entire gift shop devoted to art and trinkets inspired by ancient Egypt.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has an entire gift shop devoted to art and trinkets inspired by ancient Egypt.

Others are fascinated by the art of ancient Egypt. And visitors who want to own a little of that aesthetic - or at least a modern day facsimile of it - have a wealth of items to choose from in the gift shop.

There are statues of Egyptian gods and goddess, T-shirts and coffee cups with Egyptian iconography, books, and toys.

Raven Lynch, head buyer for the museum gift shop, points out mummy-shaped boxes and a shelf of rubber duckies with pharaoh headdresses.

“There is a lot out there, things that are appropriate and appealing to a wide audience, as far as children, adults.”

And there is something in every price range. Even if you only have a dollar to spend, you can take home your name in hieroglyphics.

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