NO BONES about it (or, at least, there's more than just bones to it): A mummy is a corpse, plain and simple. It's a dead body that still has some preserved tissue that hasn't decomposed—a cadaver that hasn't been reduced to a pile of bones and dust. OMSI's current exhibition, Mummies of the World—a touring production from American Exhibitions that will be in Portland through September 8—offers the familiar intentional mummies (like those found in ancient Egypt) as well as non-intentional mummies from around the world, accidentally preserved by circumstance, luck, and fate.
"You have to have moisture for decomposition," says Dr. Heather Gill-Frerking, director of science and education for the exhibition. "Any place you don't have moisture—for example, any sort of desert—will help allow something to be preserved. Any place that's hot and dry, or even cold and dry—the Arctic is also a really good place for mummification. Or even any place where there's natural airflow; it can still be wet, even. The mummies from the crypt in Southern Germany, it was quite a wet environment, but because there was constant airflow, they actually preserved really well."
The German mummies are among the newest on display, dating from the 17th century, and there's also an 18th century Hungarian family of father, mother, and son, complete in period getup. Most of the mummies are much older, including a Peruvian child dating from roughly 4500 BC with hair still on its head. There's a mummified dog and hyena, and of course cats from Egypt among other animals, including a howler monkey from Argentina dressed in an elaborate feather costume for reasons unknown.
These types of mysteries are part of the appeal. "I am fascinated by the idea that we can't get all the answers," says Gill-Frerking. "No matter how hard we study the mummies, we often end up generating more questions than answers, and that's something that really appeals to me."
But she's quick to add that these preserved specimens are a vital scientific resource, and the amount of research that's gone into the exhibition is comprehensive. "The possibility to really look on people of the past and to see them and really connect with them—that's harder to do with a skeleton. You can look at somebody and see a face and you can read the research that tells you that they ate this during their lifetime, or they were this many years old when they died, or they had this health condition. It gives you a chance to understand them individually in a really different way."
Mummies of the World touts itself as the largest collection of mummies ever assembled, and it's telling that the familiar Egyptian mummies are not the centerpiece of the exhibition. It's really an opportunity to see the unwrapped, non-intentional mummies that have been found across the globe, and while American Exhibitions emphasizes the family-friendly nature of the exhibit, the grim fascination of peering at a collection of well-preserved corpses is undeniable. The mummies' temperature and humidity are carefully controlled, but you're able to get incredibly close to them, to put your face up to the glass and see the individual lines and wrinkles on the preserved flesh.
I'd be lying if I said the whole thing wasn't a tiny bit creepy. But that's part of the thrill, and it's certainly a thrill that even kids will want to experience. Much in the way Hollywood has capitalized on people's fascination with mummies, a lot of it comes down to imagination. These are very old dead bodies, plain and simple, and the window into the past that's provided is the exhibition's real intrigue.
And you could argue that this fascination with death and dead bodies really began in ancient times. "The Egyptians strongly believed that your body had to be whole in order to enter the afterlife," says Gill-Frerking. "And they first saw naturally preserved mummies of bodies that had been buried in the sand and accidentally came across them a couple hundred years later, and went, 'Hey, that's a great idea. We should try that.' But it took them about 1,500 years to figure out how to actually use their own methods to mummify."
The vital information that mummies have provided has me wondering if we should be preserving ourselves as mummies for future generations to study. Marc Corwin, CEO of American Exhibitions, tells me, "At the University of Maryland medical school, they actually took an unclaimed body and mummified him using ancient Egyptian techniques. He's known as the Maryland mummy and he's in San Diego right now. The popes supposedly are preserved, as is Stalin. But there are different ways of preserving bodies nowadays through plastination and cryogenics and other methods."
Corwin goes on to say that he wouldn't ever want to be mummified, but Gill-Frerking can see the value in such an exercise. "If it was my choice," she says, "I would like to be buried in a peat bog, maybe with my medical records, so somebody can dig me up in 500 or 1,000 years and have all the information. I think there really is a place for mummification. We've been able to learn a lot from the bodies that are left behind. And although everything is well documented today to a degree that it wasn't in the past, we can't guarantee that all that information will be available in 1,000 years. Media changes all the time."
Mummies of the World, OMSI, 1945 SE Water, through Sept 8