Milwaukee Public Museum unwraps a planet’s worth of mummies

These Egyptian mummy heads are among the over 150 artifacts included in "Mummies of the World." Photo courtesy of American Exhibitions, Inc.

The holiday season may have passed, but there’s still one present to be found in Milwaukee. Just don’t try unwrapping any of it — the Milwaukee Public Museum’s security guards tend to frown on that sort of thing.

The present in question: the traveling “Mummies of the World” exhibition, which made its Midwest debut at the museum Dec. 17. Comprised of over 150 artifacts and specimens, the exhibit, presented by American Exhibitions, is the largest collection of mummies ever assembled.

When they say “Mummies of the World,” they mean it. While the word “mummy” may conjure up an ancient Egyptian pharaoh buried wrapped in bandages, the truth of the matter is that mummies come from every corner of the globe, and many are made by accident.

To Marcus Corwin, president of American Exhibitions, this truth is the purpose behind the exhibit itself.

“Mummification happens in all sorts of places,” Corwin said. “[After this exhibit] your perception of mummies will change forever.”

His statement is putting it lightly. Egyptian mummies make up only a proportional slice of the exhibit, and some of the more prominent mummies in the exhibition come from South America and Europe, with other specimens from Asia and Oceania rounding out the collection.

It began, however, with only 20 mummies in Germany. Those mummies, now considered part of a study called the German Mummy Project, were found in 2004 by curators at the Reiss-Engelhorn Museums in Mannheim, Germany. According to Dr. Heather Gill-Frerking, director of science and education for the exhibit, the mummies were believed lost during World War II, destroyed in the chaos.

Instead, the mummies were hiding in plain sight — or, at least, in theoretically possible sight. Tucked away amidst the plethora of crates in storage, Gill-Frerking said the mummies were discovered by accident while museum staff was preparing for some remodeling.

Without documentation, the need to understand who the mummies were and where they came from led to the German Mummy Project, and indirectly to the exhibition itself. According to Gill-Frerking, who was brought in shortly after the mummies’ discovery due to her expertise in biological anthropology, the typical procedure is to decide what needs to be learned about a mummy — gender, age of death, place of origin, occupation, etc. — and then devise a test to find out that information, in the least invasive way possible.

Many of those tests now involve medical imaging, which Gill-Frerking said has helped a lot. While the idea of wheeling a person who died thousands of years ago into an MRI machine or scheduling them for a CAT scan may seem ludicrous, the procedure is non-destructive, making it a considerably better alternative to the method archeologists used to use — ripping off the bandages and effectively taking the mummies apart.

“With medical imaging, we can reconstruct every mummy in 3-D,” Gill-Frerking said.

The reason such non-invasive procedures are necessary is because of the fragility of the mummies themselves. Mummies are created when the normal process of decay after death is interrupted or stopped, usually because of a lack of moisture or oxygen. Because decay does not occur, the body’s soft tissues, like skin, hair or muscles, remain intact, although delicate.

In ancient Egypt, where mummies were created intentionally after death, this was accomplished by removing the internal organs, embalming the corpses, and then tightly encasing them in bandages or wrappings. Natural mummification, on the other hand, occurs in places that are environmentally suited for such preservation, such as crypts, caves or bogs, after someone dies there or their body is placed there purposefully.

The specimens in “Mummies of the World” are breathtaking, regardless of how they came to be preserved. There are some, of course, that clearly draw the eye by the nature of their extreme exoticness: a South American woman 1,300 years old who still bears faint tattoos of unknown meaning on her face and breasts; a dog found in a European bog in near-perfect condition, its fur still preserved and beckoning a belly rub; the ultimate contradiction of a 6,000-year-old infant, one of the oldest child mummies ever found.

But then there are some that are striking simply because they don’t seem exotic at all. The heads of Egyptian mummies, arranged in a line, are certainly strange in the abstract, but when you’re up close, examining the thin heads of hair that have withstood time, they become less archaeological curiosity and more distant cousin. And looking at mummies from more recent times, like the Hungarian family laid out in their family crypt only a few hundred years ago or even the husk of a squirrel, less than one hundred years old, only magnifies the effects.

MPM curator Carter Lupton, head of anthropology and history, said he believes this strong empathic connection is what makes mummies so appealing to the average person.

“It’s a rare thing … it gets you thinking about how common our humanity really is,” Lupton said.

Lupton said “Mummies of the World” has been incredibly well-received by the public, with the museum drawing in both locals and visitors from as far as other countries. On the Monday after Christmas, a little over a week after the exhibit opened, he said the museum set a new attendance record — over 10,000 people — and over 25 percent of them went through the mummies exhibit.

He added that the exhibit had 22,000 people pass through in the first eight days.

Lupton said having the exhibition come to Milwaukee first, rather than Chicago, as might be expected, was a great boon for the museum, and signified a growing awareness of what Milwaukee has to offer.

“Milwaukee has really gotten up there with some of the big cities,” Lupton said.

Future locations for the three-year tour have not yet been announced, but the exhibit has previously been to Los Angeles, where it premiered in July 2010.

“Mummies of the World” will run at the Milwaukee Public Museum through May 30. Tickets are timed-entrance, and can be purchased at www.mpm.edu or at 414-278-2728.

Michael Orlovits is an 18th Century mummy found in Hungary. Photo courtesy of American Exhibitions, Inc.