Friday, 6 June 2014

8 stunning mummies at the British Museum

Cutting edge technology and archaeology go together extremely well these days, but it's fair to say that when it comes to museums, displays tend to be a little behind the curve for a whole host of reasons. The British Museum's 'Ancient Lives New Discoveries' exhibition, more commonly being referred to as '8 mummies', raises the bar substantially on a number of levels. It's also fair to say that it marks a spectacular return to form for our national flagship institution after the lukewarm reception to the Vikings.

The concept of the exhibition is simple. 8 Egyptian mummies from the BM's collections which have never before been unwrapped have been intensively studied through the use of non-destructive CT scanning, and the results of this analysis presented. The experience is therefore twofold - one is the story of the people themselves, the other a demonstration of the power of modern scientific investigation.

The ethics surrounding the storage and display of human remains are dealt with succinctly at the start of the exhibition, and I've heard that images of the displays are available at the ticketing desk for those unsure if the content will be suitable for them or their little ones. I'm pleased but not at all surprised that I didn't hear a word of objection to the display of the remains while in the gallery.

The individuals being highlighted cover a long period of time, and a variety of mummification processes, from a body naturally preserved in the desert in c.3500BC through the heydays of 'proper' mummification, some unusual practices from Roman Egypt and ending with a Christian Sudanese mummy dating to c.AD700.

Each mummy is presented in a clean, simple and respectful manner, with labels about the individual placed near to, but outside of the display case. This approach of not directly labelling an individual (as one might a an object such as a pot) proves to be a subtle but effective technique in retaining the humanity of the person and not reducing them to the status of 'museum object'. It's a good method and one that should be considered by any museum displaying human remains.

Close to each body is a large scale animation of the full CT scan, displayed on high quality screens. In most cases, as the body is unwrapped, this is the time that the actual person is revealed, hidden and huddled within their bindings. The animations cycle through the layers of the body, showing how the body relates to the outer casing and clearly demonstrating surviving organic matter such as organs, and various amulets and the like. Even the way the animations work is super slick - the fluidity of the layers appearing and disappearing means that it's easy to get mesmerised and watch a few complete cycles before turning away.

Alongside this are interactive versions of the CT scans. Using a very neat touch-operated wheel visitors can rotate or zoom in on the scan as appropriate to discover a certain feature for themselves.  What's particularly good about this is that the CT scans aren't something produced for the sake of the exhibition - they're the real thing, as used by the specialists and scientists. Having visitors engage with real material this way is a masterstroke, and evidence of how science doesn't need to be dumbed down for public consumption.

Alongside the body and the scans were cases of material illustrative of the life or occupation of that individual, but these also used technology to great effect, for example through the CT scans of the contents of a canopic jar and through 3D prints of body parts and amulets taken directly from the CT scans. This latter approach feels revolutionary in a museum context - not only can the existence of an object be identified through non-invasive scanning, but an exact replica can be created in 3D and placed in a display case next to it. We're definitely through the looking glass now, people!

The fact that the bodies haven't been unwrapped is of course wonderful for their future preservation, but more than that, it actually adds to the experience. Being able to see the digital version of the body in some way actually enhances the experience as the relationship between the body and it's 'container' is preserved. By comparison, having a body lying flat next to that container somehow wouldn't have the same impact. Not being able to see the body for real actually makes it feel more special and more of a privilege.

The final body on display has an unusual twist. The c.AD700 body of a woman from Sudan has a tattoo showing a monogram of St Michael. This unexpected survival (though sadly I failed to see it on the actual body) is a great story, as it was the rise of Christianity that brought an end to the practice of mummification. A suitable way to round off the journey indeed.

If I have the tiniest grumble, it was that sometimes the layout meant that the dividing lines between one mummy's accompanying material and the next were blurred, and a feeling of a new chapter opening with each new individual was diminished. As I said, though, it's an incredibly minor point.

Overall, the exhibition breaks new ground in the presentation of cutting edge scientific research to the public, but also in displaying human remains in a way that is respectful, personal and touching. Absolutely superb.

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