Cover Photo Credit: American Exhibitions, Inc.
Mummies are an important part of our cultural imagination. From Indiana Jones to “The Mummy” to Scooby Doo, these ancient (supposedly cursed) figures capture our interest on screen. In between obsessions with dinosaurs and airplanes, many young people also become intrigued by the ancient Egyptians and their legendary approach to preserving pharaohs.
Yet, despite their status in our film and cultural lore, not all mummies are from Egypt — and not all of them went through the preservation process intentionally. They are far more complex and even more intriguing than you might initially think.
Starting tomorrow, Central Florida residents and visitors can dive into the world of mummies as part of the Orlando Science Center’s newest visiting exhibition: “Mummies of the World.”
This exhibit (part of the Orlando Science Center’s 60th anniversary celebrations) is the largest exhibition of real mummies ever assembled. It introduces visitors to the real science behind mummies, and helps us gain a better understanding of how past civilizations lived and died.
At a media preview yesterday, Orlando Science Center President & CEO JoAnn Newman called the exhibit an “incredible journey combining science, history, and culture.”
City Commissioner Robert Stuart said, “This exhibit opens our mind’s eye to the things that have gone before us, and what we can learn from them.”
Parents should note that the exhibit is not intended to be scary, and that it has received a great response from young people in other cities (with children often picking up details missed by adults). However, due to the sensitive material, you may wish to discuss the exhibit and its contents with younger children before taking them in. A parents’ guide is available on the Mummies of the World website.
Top 5 Mummies to See at “Mummies of the World”
The “Mummies of the World” exhibition contains 45 human and animal mummies from countries such as Ecuador, Scotland, Hungary, Germany, the Netherlands, and Egypt, displayed alongside informative and interactive activities. The oldest is approximately 2,000 years old; the newest is just twenty years old. Here are just a few of the exhibits you can expect to see.
1. The Baron and Baroness (Germany)
As the Thirty Years’ War raged across Germany in the 1600s, Baron von Holz took shelter with his relatives at Sommersdorf Castle in the southern part of the country. While he was there, he died and was buried in the family crypt, along with four other family members (including Baroness Schenck von Geiern).
Napoleon’s forces were the first to discover the mummified Baron and Baroness in the crypt when they occupied the castle in 1806. While none of the people buried there were deliberately embalmed, scientists speculate that a natural mummification process occurred because of the constant flow of air which swept through the crypt.
2. Nes-Hor and Nes-Min (Egypt)
If you’re a fan of ancient Egyptian mummies, fear not — the “Mummies of the World” exhibition has something for you. In addition to other partial mummies, you can meet Nes-Hor and Nes-Min, two ancient priests of the Temple of Min in the city of Khent-min.
Both Nes-Hor and Nes-Min were stolist priests, responsible to help clothe, clean, and purify the temple’s statues of the gods. Their need for purity was extreme — it was not uncommon for stolist priests to bathe three or four times per day and shave off all of their body hair.
Nes-Hor and Nes-Min were both well preserved and prepared in the traditional Egyptian way, with most internal organs extracted. They may both be viewed alongside the elaborate sarcophagus tombs which serve as their resting place.
3. MUMAB, the First Modern-Day Ancient Mummy (United States)
In 1994, University of Maryland scholars Robert Brier and Ronald Wade created MUMAB in order to better understand the ancient Egyptian mummification process.
Using a modern body and recreations of ancient tools and materials (including natron, aromatic spices, and tools made of obsidian), Brier and Wade replicated the environment and process followed and documented by ancient priests. This includes learning how to remove the brain from the skull using a bronze hook.
At this time, MUMAB shows no signs of decay, suggesting that the modern mummification experiment was a success.
4. The Burns Collection (Scotland)
How do you train medical students without human cadavers? In the early days of formal medical education in the United Kingdom, executed criminals from the gallows were the only legal source of cadaver specimens, and there was a great demand for more. Until the Anatomy Act of 1832, nearly all anatomists and surgeons in the United Kingdom resorted to illegal methods like grave robbing in order to acquire these unique educational materials.
The Burns Collection is a unique collection of medical mummies dating back to the 19th century. The specimens were created by Allen Burns, the sole director of the dissecting rooms at Glasgow’s College Street Medical School. Allen and his partner, surgeon Andrew Russel, preserved both partial and full specimens in this collection using chemical solutions containing arsenic, mercury, nitrates, and other toxic compounds.
These mummies arrived in the United States after Granville Pattison, Burns’ assistant (and heir to the collection), accepted an appointment at the University of Maryland. Few of the specimens have been exhibited; this exhibition marks the first time that parts of the collection are available for public viewing.
Fun Fact: Parts of the Burns Collection have gone missing over the years. The mummy pictured above actually appeared for bidding on eBay in 2006, under the category of “medical specimen.” Authorities were able to reclaim it and return it to the school before the mummy was lost again.
5. The Vac Mummies (Hungary)
In 1994, a small church north of Budapest, Hungary was undergoing renovations when strange cracks began to appear in the wall. A local bricklayer was summoned, and he eventually broke through a thin brick layer which lead to a hidden staircase and a long-forgotten crypt.
The crypt revealed the final resting place of 265 individuals, stacked from floor to ceiling in elaborately decorated coffins. Many of the bodies had been mummified with intact clothing, hair, and even skin. From the church and coffin records, researchers determined that many of the individuals had been carpenters, city officials, priests, and seamstresses — all lost to the “White Plague” in the 18th century. Researchers discovered that the mysterious plague was actually a tuberculosis epidemic, which killed many of the people buried in the crypt.
Among those buried were the Orlovits family — Michael, Veronica, and Johannes. Their story was discovered in the church records: Michael, a miller, died at the age of 41, leaving Veronica a widow before she died at the age of 38. Johannes, their third son, was only one year old.
Mummies of the World: The Exhibition opens at the Orlando Science Center on Saturday June 13, and will run throughout the summer and fall. Check out the Orlando Science Center website and the exhibition website for more details. It is well worth your time to visit and explore!