Mummies come to Montreal
What is the fascination with mummies? Ancient Egypt is right up there with dinosaurs in kids’ obsessions. The difference is that almost all adults retain that awe-struck wonder about this beautiful and mysterious civilization. Our imaginations have been captured by countless books and movies on the lives and death rituals of these people.
The British Museum exhibition of six mummies and over 240 objects related to the lives of each of them opened last week at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Besides the superb staging and curatorship of the exhibit, what makes it unique is the inclusion of modern medical scanning technology.
I had seen a sarcophagus before. There is a beautiful one in the permanent collection of our museum. A sarcophagus is simply the coffin that contained a mummy. I had often included ours in tours I gave as a volunteer guide. The gods painted on the wooden case, the still brilliant colours and the story of the woman who had been entombed in our sarcophagus were a high point of a tour.
So why did it feel so different to stand before what would have been the contents of a sarcophagus? A sober form, wrapped simply in linen, the shape of the body clearly outlined lay before me. What was touching to me was the irresistible tug of the imagination to connect with the person lying just a foot away. A deep feeling of compassion flooded over me.
Archaeology has been described as controlled destruction. To remove the bindings of these mummies would inflict irreparable damage. The code of ethics of the British Museum does not permit the removal of the wrappings. Fortunately we now have the technical tools to virtually strip away the bindings and “see” the person within. The CT scans our doctors order to diagnose our health problems have been used here to penetrate the mysterious lives of these six individuals. CT scanners use a combination of x-rays and a computer to create the images that are projected onto the walls behind the mummies.
Visitors now know that these people were buried with amulets, with nail covers, with colored beads. We know the ages, the ailments and the causes of death as revealed to us by state of the art equipment. The priests and embalmers who carefully prepared these six people for the afterlife could never have imagined that the immortality they hoped for would be, in a strange way, played out in a museum thousands of miles from the Nile.
Of course, I looked on, intrigued as the three-D images were projected on the walls. My eyes kept coming back to the white forms, however, and something in me was glad that there was no image of the child mummy. He was safe inside his touchingly small sarcophagus. In glass cases lining the walls of his room the toys our children still play with lay still. A ball, a top, little clothes that a child might wear today.
In spite of our technological advances, there is still so much that is universal. What is the meaning of our lives and our deaths? What is the meaning of the death of a child, of our grief? We share many mysteries with our ancient Egyptian brothers and sisters and not all of them can be revealed by state of the art equipment.
The exhibition – Six Mummies – Six Lives will continue until February 2, 2020.