Death Warmed Over

Bowers mummies are creepy for all the wrong reasons

Reproduced by permission of the
trustees of the British MuseumThey draw out the suspense before they bring the money shot, of course. To get there, you traverse a maze, wading through little cat statues and Anubises, a few gold necklaces, some steles with beautifully carved hieroglyphics, educational texts about Saqqara and how the pyramids were built, a map with distances between ancient Egyptian cities, and cute little miniature vessels and bowls you'd be forgiven for cooing over like precious dollhouse toys. You pass under a few lamps with spooky ambient fire, reminiscent of Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure, minus the motion sickness.

The Bowers Museum knows how to make the most of its 10 mummies on loan from the British Museum.

When you finally reach them, you've been primed. You're excited. And then, gazing at the oily linens wrapping the thousands-of-years-old dead, you might feel just a bit disgusted. With the Bowers, with the entire British Empire, and with yourself.

There was a small contretemps when the woman who writes our art listings wrote of the mummy exhibit, "Mummies: Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt," that "from all that looting, we common folk can learn how Egyptians prepared and sent the dead into the afterlife, a sacred ritual that was never intended to be gawked at." The very nice folks at the Bowers hoped she would come by to see the exhibit and make up her mind then.

I've seen the exhibit, and I couldn't agree with her more.

At first nothing was amiss. One tiny mummy case, beautifully gilded and sensually masked, was for a girl of about 12 who'd been a singer—something like a priestess's temple virgin. We didn't see her body, just her elaborate coffin, but the wall texts tell us she was so tiny that even inside her minute case, her head only reached the coffin's shoulders.

Others were large, man-sized, their linens tight and bound with extra lengths around their ankles; we were amused, giggling and making chasing-mummy jokes. We're not really very mature.

But when I started looking closely at the large posters near each mummy, showing CAT scans of their skeletons where their fragile bones look like matchsticks while their abdomens are filled with sand, I started feeling like Dahmer, mixed with the most corrupt peeping Tom. This was the most perverted prying I could think of. And topped with the body of a small child, it became clear that we were supposed to be educated and entertained by people's deaths, no matter how long ago they might have been. There was a palpable sense of the profane: that the British had taken people's remains as trophies, that they'd desecrated them, and the photos of their insides, made visible through their protective wraps, made the invasive point almost a rape; made them—maybe even us—"grave robbers."

When the controversial "Body Worlds" came to Southern California last year, I neglected to see it, though I was dying to. The posed and preserved and plastinated remains looked fascinating, and I imagined it would be both horribly creepy and mesmerizing, like ReservoirDogs.I had no ethical qualms about it at all.

But the dead folks of "Body Worlds" (more than 200 of them) donated their bodies to Gunther von Hagens specifically so they could be stripped down to their parts and displayed to the rest of us. They didn't mind. I imagine the mummies of Egypt don't mind much either. But we never got them to sign the forms.

"MUMMIES: DEATH AND THE AFTERLIFE IN ANCIENT EGYPT," BOWERS MUSEUM OF CULTURAL ART, 2002 N. MAIN ST., SANTA ANA, (714) 567-3600; WWW.BOWERS.ORG. OPEN TUES.-SUN., 10 A.M.-4 P.M. $5-$19; CHILDREN UNDER 5 FREE. THROUGH APRIL 15, 2007.

 
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