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Mysteries unwrapped

Preserved remains offer connection between ancient, modern life at OMSI mummy exhibit


by: PHOTOS COURTESY OF AMERICAN EXHIBITIONS INC. - Egyptian mummy heads, The Detmold Child and The Tattoed Woman are part of the Mummies of the World exhibit, which opens at OMSI on June 14. Its called the largest collection of mummies ever, from 21 museums and five continents.From ancient to modern times, mummies have existed in one form or another.

“There are absolute mummies being created today, both artificially and naturally,” expert Heather Gill-Frerking says, referring to the example of a body left in a warm and dry apartment and preserving, or mummification still being part of honoring the deceased such as in Papua New Guinea. “But, modern laws have stepped in (with many cultures). You can’t handle the dead that way.”

Portland will be home to mummies from June 14 through Sept. 9, in the intriguing “Mummies of the World” exhibit at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. It’s billed as the largest collection of mummies in the world — mummies from five continents and 21 museums. It’ll be the eighth of nine stops for the exhibit. After an East Coast show, the mummies could be gone forever from the United States, dispersed back to their resting places.

“It really is a privilege to have 21 loaning institutions allowing us to present the exhibition in the United States,” says Marcus Corwin, chief executive officer of American Exhibitions, Inc., and the producer of the exhibit. “It’s been so well-received. Everywhere we’ve gone, we’ve broken the attendance records at the museums.”

So see them when you can, and bring the children, per your discretion, says Gill-Frerking, director of science and education for the exhibition. Similarly, the Body Worlds exhibit at OMSI in the past could have been deemed kind of creepy for kids.

“People often wonder if it’s suitable for kids. Parents know their kids best,” she says. “But, (children often) don’t have the fear that adults have. Mostly, kids have been fascinated by it. Kids don’t have the preconceived notion that it should be scary. They just want to see stuff.

“It’s a really good opportunity to come literally face-to-face with the past.”

by: COURTESY OF DARRYL MORAN - The mummy of sarcophagus of an Egyptian priest, Nes-pa-kai-schuti, tell the story of intentional mummification; the sarcophagus is made from sycamore wood and decorated with detailed paintings, hieroglyphics tell us his name, heritage and occupation.The “Mummies of the World” exhibit had an inauspicious beginning. Workers at the Reiss-Engelhorn Museums in Mannheim, Germany, were cleaning out an old building in 2004 and came across preserved mummies in boxes. Speculation had them being hidden by the Nazis during World War II. They belonged to artist Gabriel von Max, who died in 1915. The Germany Mummy Project was born, for which Gill-Frerking served as scientific curator, and organizers went about assembling mummies from around the world — 21 world-renowned museums, organizations and collections from seven countries.

“There was a responsibility that goes with them, to study and share them,” Gill-Frerking says. “It’s a pretty unusual exhibit. You really, truly won’t see an exhibition like this. There’s something for everybody.”

The exhibit features about 40 human and animal mummy artifacts from South America, Europe, Asia, Oceania and Egypt, but it’s a small percentage of the mummies that exist. Gill-Frerking estimates there are about 2,000 mummies in the world.

Mummification largely has been associated with the Egyptians — King Tut and intentional preservation.

“Probably the vast majority of mummies are naturally preserved,” Gill-Frerking says.

Some of the highlights of Mummies of the World:

• The Detmold Child — A Peruvian child, which radiocarbon dating has determined to be 6,420 years old, or 3,000 years before the birth of King Tut. “He had a heart condition and lung infection,” Gill-Frerking says. “He has beautiful little toes and toenails, and hair.”

• The Orlovits family — Michael, Veronica and son Johannes, part of a group of 18th-century mummies discovered in a long-forgotton church crypt in Vac, Hungary, in 1994. “They were infected by tuberculosis,” Gill-Frerking says. “We have church records and can see who the people were.”

• Baron von Holz — A 17th-century nobleman believed to have died during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) near Sommersdorf, Germany, discovered by relatives in the crypt of the family’s castle.

• The Tattooed Woman — Among South American mummies, she has long, black hair and sat in the burial position typical of Chile before 1,400 A.D. Little has been learned about her unusual tattoos — an oval with a dot inside on both breasts and beneath the left corner of her mouth.

• Egyptian mummies — This illustrates how people were mummified and treated and includes the sarcophagus and mummy of an Egyptian man named

Nes-pa-kai-schuti, dating back to 650 B.C.

• Animal mummies — Artifacts include a howler monkey from Argentina, a lizard from the Sahara Desert and birds, dogs, fish and reptiles.

The exhibition, which debuted at the California Science Center in Los Angeles in July 2010, was prepared in accordance with recommendations of the International Council of Museums’ code of ethics.

“The key to the exhibition is they are people and we treat them as people,” Gill-Frerking says. “It’s not unusual for curators or myself to speak to them. I’ve heard curators saying things like, ‘We’re just going

to place you here,’ or, ‘Thank you for allowing us to tell your story.’ ”

Says Corwin: “We realize these are people like you and I, who had lives like you and I. People will connect in ways they may not imagine. As we say, ‘Inside every mummy is a story wanting to be told.’ ”