Erin Petersen
Mummies of the World

Bridging the past to the present

By - Dec 17th, 2010 04:00 am
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Three Egyptian Mummies. Photo: Merck KGaA archives, Darmstadt, Germany

Beginning today, the Milwaukee Public Museum will host over 150 visitors who have traveled quite a long way to get here — both in distance, and in time. Mummies of the World, the largest exhibition of mummies and related artifacts ever assembled, opens to the public on the museum’s second floor for a six month stint in our fair city.

These visitors may not be much for conversation, but their silence speaks volumes. The 12,000 square foot exhibit not only features an impressive array of never-before-seen artifacts from around the globe, but also uses technology and science to bridge the gap between past and present.

Using Computer Tomography (CT), radiocarbon dating, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and DNA analysis, the curators, historians and scientists behind Mummies provide a timeline for many of these discoveries, along with information about ancient environments and cultures.

The Detmold Child. Photo: Lippisches Landesmuseum, Detmold, Germany

The show was derived from the German Mummy Project and curated by the Reiss-Engelhorn Museums in Mannheim, Germany. Curator Dr. Heather Gill-Frerking says that the research for the exhibition began in 2004, when 20 mummies were found in the basement of the museum. Since then, the project has established an international team of scientists and collaborated with dozens of other museums, organizations and collections from seven countries to create this traveling exhibition.

“This is real science, [these are] real mummies and we want to bring this exhibition to real people,” says Gill-Frerking.

With displays ranging from ornate sarcophagi to the remnants of small animals preserved by wind, heat, salt and water, Mummies is sure to change one’s perception of the oft-caricatured mummy.

Peppered throughout the exhibit are interactive kiosks and 3D animations that offer a wealth of information about mummification and the lives and, of course, deaths of the individual mummies on display. Other sections offer an up-close look at remnants of cultures that have been gone for thousands of years. In one section, visitors can even read a few pages from the Book of the Dead.

While most associate mummies with Egypt, the process was first discovered in the dry environments of South America. For example, “The Detmold Child,” found in Peru in a remarkable state of preservation, has been dated to about 4504 – 4457 B.C. — 3,000 years before the birth of King Tut.

While most have a basic understanding of the Egyptian’s intensive mummification process (those who don’t will learn the finer points of the ritual via the tools, materials and vessels on display) throughout history, people and animals have also been naturally mummifed, based on their geographic location. From peat-laden bogs to desert caves to long-forgotten crypts, mummies have  also been found in Europe, Asia and Oceania.

Despite its decidedly macabre veneer, Mummies of the World is a show that everyone can appreciate, regardless of age. Especially children, whose primary experience with mummies is that of Hollywood horror movies and “Tales from the Crypt.”

The Orlovits Family. Photo: Hungary Natural Museum, Budapest

“This show can teach kids that mummies are not scary,” says Marcus Corwin, President and CEO of American Exhibitions, Inc., the organization that helped to produce the exhibit. “It teaches them the reality that we come and go in life.”

And while the multi-media displays will mesmerize the inner history/science buff in us all, it’s hard not to be filled with a sense of wonder while viewing 6,000 year old amulets, or an ancient engraved Eye of Horus or the haunting and demure remains of an 18th Century Hungarian family, lain out next to one another in traditional cotton burial attire.

Near the end of the exhibit, one wall bears the photos of some of the more mysterious figures on display, and ponders who these people were and, essentially, how they got there. On the floor, spelled out in soft, white light are the words “father,” “mother,” “miller,” “priest,” etc.

“These were real people — they lived lives just like you and I,” says Corwin. “ Learning about how various peoples and cultures lived and died can change our lives today.”

The Milwaukee stop is one of seven U.S. engagements for the show, providing a rare opportunity for Midwesterners. As Corwin noted at yesterday’s preview, once the exhibition leaves the U.S., it will never been seen again in its current assemblage, as everything will be returned to the loaning institutions once the three-year tour concludes.

Lines are sure to be long for this one, but it will be well worth the wait for an up close and personal glimpse into another place in time.

Mummies of the World runs December 17 – May 30, 2011 at the Milwaukee Public Museum, 800 W. Wells Street. For hours and tickets, visit the MPM online. For more information about the exhibition, visit

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