JP Brown, associate conservator at the Field Museum in Chicago, preparing the Egyptian mummy known as the “Gilded Lady” for display at the American Museum of Natural History (© AMNH / D. Finnin)

“The story of mummification begins with a person’s death,” starts the Mummies exhibition now at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. And each of the long-deceased Peruvian and Egyptian people are treated as individuals, even as they’ve become museum objects in their afterlives. The traveling show is developed from the collections of the Field Museum in Chicago, with 18 featured mummies.

A “false head” that would have sat on a Chancay mummy from today’s Peru (photo by John Weinstein, 2015 The Field Museum)

Co-curated by David Hurst Thomas, AMNH curator of North American archaeology, and John J. Flynn, AMNH curator of fossil mammals, Mummies presents the artifacts of interment as portals to the moment of burial, revealing ancient relationships with death. And the display of the mummies in this exhibition closely mirrors current practices in museums of Peru and Egypt. No photography is allowed (and you’ll notice none of the Peruvian bundles in these press images), loud voices are hushed; it’s a contrasting experience to, say, the frenzy around the Egyptian mummies at the British Museum.

“Our policy on the display of human remains states that where human remains are exhibited, they will be displayed in a culturally appropriate, sensitive, and informative manner, and always accompanied by explanatory and contextual interpretation,” Ryan Williams, curator of archaeological science at the Field Museum, told Hyperallergic. “Display of human remains will only be made in accordance with the values of the relevant community and/or in accordance with appropriate museum practice. In Peru and Egypt, mummies are widely displayed in national and community museums and we know from ethnohistoric sources that mummies were publicly displayed as honored ancestors in Peru in some of their original cultural contexts.”

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This is the Field Museum mummies’ first time on tour (aside from their initial journey to Chicago). The Peruvian and Egyptian traditions which are separated on two sides of the exhibition represent two of the world’s oldest mummy-making practices. South America’s mummies are much older, going back to the Chinchorro culture of 5,000–2,000 BCE. This is deliberate preservation of the dead, as opposed to just tumbling into a bog or being buried in a dry desert. The Peruvian mummies, their limbs bent to their chests, were usually topped with a false head, sometimes a clay mask formed from the face of the corpse; the Egyptian mummies were reclined with arms crossed and cocooned in several secure, ornately-decorated coffins.

Although both cultures deliberately preserved the decaying body, by de-fleshing bones or embalming, the relationship with these corpses was very different. A diorama in Mummies of a Chancay burial pit has containers of food and chicha beer made from corn, with a nearby case showing examples of these vessels molded like people offering the dead a drink. These were regularly refreshed by the deceased’s family, whose members would periodically bring the mummies up to the surface to attend festivals. A 1440–1665 CE model found at Huaca de la Luna, Peru, exhibited in the recent Design for Eternity: Architectural Models from the Ancient Americas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, featured three tiny mummies presiding over a Chimú palace ritual.

Chicha (corn beer) pots, which were buried with mummies along with other food. The vessels’ figures hold tiny cups, as if offering the dead a drink (photo by John Weinstein, © 2015 The Field Museum)

In Egypt, mummifying the dead was an industry, with coffin makers and professional embalmers who took over the funerary rites from the families. Sarcophagi were painted and gilded, tombs with heavy lids were built. Once placed in their elaborate tombs, surrounded by their grave goods, the dead were sealed away for eternity. While in Peru the living continued a physical relationship with the dead, in Egypt they were sent off with provisions for the next existence.

A reflective tone pervades the low-lit galleries, where Peruvian mummy bundles and Egyptian mummies with gilded faces are arranged in glass and wood cases. Alongside are “touch tables” where recent CT scans allow viewers to pull back the wrappings, whether on a mummified Egyptian gazelle or a Peruvian woman with a newborn, something that in the past would have been physically done by archaeologists. Offerings and amulets are revealed through 3D scans, offering a tactile connection to the artifacts.

Installation view of Mummies, with a Greco-Roman coffin lid for a woman (© AMNH / C. Chesek)

Mummies was developed as the first of the Field Museum’s Opening the Vaults series of exhibitions that feature old collections and cutting edge research and technology,” Jaap Hoogstraten, director of exhibitions at the Field Museum, told Hyperallergic. “Many of the mummies on exhibit haven’t been displayed publicly since the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and we felt that the historic, early 20th-century cases intuitively communicate that these are old collections.”

CT scanning and subsequent 3D imaging of a wooden coffin of an ancient Egyptian teenage boy, showing the coffin was too big for him (© The Field Museum)

Christopher Heaney at the History of Anthropology Newsletter published an article earlier this year on the 1893 display of the Peruvian mummies at Chicago’s world’s fair, noting it included an “ancient Peruvian burial ground” populated with numerous burial bundles and associated artifacts. These were divided between the Field Museum and Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology following the Exposition’s close. Significantly, these mummies were excavated and curated by George A. Dorsey, who was the first American to receive a PhD in anthropology in the United States. Often in this early era of display, the mummies were completely exposed. The Internet Archive has a digitized guide to AMNH from 1911, showing an unwrapped Peruvian mummy and two intact bundles, along with a map directing visitors to “shrunken human heads” and the “mummy of a copper miner” in a “South American Indians” gallery.

One of the first mummies Mummies visitors encounter is an older man with bared teeth and skin, a label explaining that a century ago, archaeologists unwrapped his bundle and detached his head in the process. These disassemblies could be more spectacle than research, such as the infamous Victorian mummy unwrapping parties, or a hazard of grave robbing, as with an Egyptian mummy on view whose coffin was broken in a search for valuables. Sometimes unraveled mummies were even ground into pigment. However with the emergence of non-invasive imaging, at least mummies were more protected in the realm of science, and Mummies shows how researchers have been early adopters of technology.

Mummy and a CT scanner in Mummies (© AMNH / C. Chesek)

Egyptologist Flinders Petrie examined mummy extremities with the X-ray in 1897, only a couple of years following Wilhelm Röntgen’s first X-ray photograph of his wife’s hand, and by 1931 Roy Moodie was systematically X-raying the Egyptian mummies at the Field Museum. Later in 1977, a mummy was studied with a CT scanner, four years after the technique was introduced. Now Mummies visitors can witness the Roman-era Egyptian “Gilded Lady,” so named for her golden headdress, and also know she was a woman in her forties with curly hair and an overbite, who possibly died of tuberculosis. DNA analysis and facial reconstructions are continuing to expand the knowledge of the past through these remains.

Museums have been slow to return indigenous human remains from their collections, although the tide is shifting with major repatriations like the Spirit Cave mummy to the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Indian Tribe. Even if mummies are being exhibited sensitively, and respectfully of their cultures, it can be a complicated thing to argue that in 2017 we still need to see the bones, the wrappings, the angles of bodies bound by fabric. Yet the Mummies exhibition is surprisingly compelling in its empathy for the past. One recent conservation discovery is a drawing of the Egyptian goddess Nut on the interior of a coffin, as if the dead were reclining into her protective arms. Mummies closes with an illuminated 3D reconstruction of a man who lived in ancient Peru, with text stating: “The dead have more to tell us. We’re finding new ways to listen.” The mystery of the mummies is not only what is beneath the cloth, but who they were as people, and that affirmation in contemporary displays is essential.

The “Gilded Lady,” a well-preserved mummy from Roman-era Egypt (photo by John Weinstein, © 2015 The Field Museum)

The “Gilded Lady” CT scan, showing she was a woman in her forties with curly hair and a slight overbite (© The Field Museum)

Detail of paintings of the sky goddess Nut (the woman with outstretched wings) and the Sons of Horus (the four animal-headed figures) on the mummy of a 14-year-old Egyptian (photo by John Weinstein, 2015 The Field Museum,)

Mummified gazelle from Egypt (photo by John Weinstein, © 2015 The Field Museum)

An Egyptian plain red coffin, with the paint worn away exposing its wood grain and construction seams (© AMNH / C. Chesek)

Detail of a coffin from the late 25th Dynasty or early 26th Dynasty of ancient Egypt, showing the god Thoth holding the hand of a just deceased man, who is introduced to Osiris, god of the underworld, with the lower band showing the deceased being embalmed by Anubis (photo by John Weinstein, © 2015 The Field Museum)

Mummies continues through January 7, 2018 at the American Museum of Natural History (Central Park West at 79th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan). 

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...