Do What 1.5 Million Others Already Have: Gawk at Mummies, Now at Bowers Museum

To get an idea of the popularity of the “Mummies of the World” exhibition that is currently making its way through the museum circuit, consider the fact that the 1.5 millionth visitor—an 8-year-old boy, accompanied by his mother—walked through the front doors of the Bowers Museum two weeks ago. The morbidly entertaining curator’s notes are chock-full of delicious, grisly, horrifying tidbits: Details about child sacrifice, exsanguination and how to remove a brain without cutting open the skull are delivered in a cool, detached narrative belying their gruesomeness. (Hint: Use a metal hook up the sinus as a primitive blender first.)

Did you know mummies were once pulverized and made into a paint called mummy brown? That mummies were shipped to the United States so that the linen could be used for paper, with the bodies tossed in a dustbin after? That shrunken heads were so popular with tourists that Ecuador and Peru had to ban them? Before the Bowers lets you in on this fascinating, must-see exhibition, however, you’ll have to watch a brief PSA reminding you that you’re about to see human remains, telling you to be thoughtful, admonishing against selfies with the dead, and asking you to shut off your cell phones. What follows is tasteful, informative and respectfully quiet, with the museum never letting in so many people that it becomes crowded or loud.

Walking into the space where the first mummy is kept—the Baroness Schenk von Geiern—is like entering a sacred space. Dating from the 17th century, the Baroness lies in a protective cradle that prevents her severely bowed corpse from snapping in two, the lower half of her body modestly covered with cloth. Naturally preserved by a constant flow of air going through her crypt, her brown body has the texture of dried leaves. A few of her teeth peer out from underneath her thin lip, skin flakes spotting her forehead, her fingernails like little chips of porcelain pushing through the desiccated flesh. The Baron von Holz, from the same crypt and similarly draped, wears expensive leather boots that go up to his knees; they’re cracked and split, but otherwise intact.

Explicating the difference between environments is a female mummy from the late 1st to 3rd century A.D., discovered in a Netherlands bog. It barely resembles anything human: flattened, missing much of its head, the skin black and rubbery, more a tar spill than what would be recognizable as human flesh. There is a splat of similarly mummified intestines displayed nearby, with curator’s notes detailing what her last meal was before she passed on.

Deeper into the exhibit, there are the bodies of children from South America, one preserved by the hot air and wrapped in bandages to absorb moisture; another is in a bag tied in a lattice of knotted rope, just the skull exposed, flesh peeling as if a sheet of yellowed paper. Nearby lies a female adult from Peru, hands to face as in Munch’s The Scream, curled in a ball, her knees to her chest. There are flayed medical-school cadavers rescued from oblivion (including a corpse that showed up on eBay); sarcophagi; shrunken heads; the University of Maryland’s modern mummy made from a donated cadaver; and the Orlovits family (husband, wife and 1-year-old) from Hungary, discovered when an underground crypt was opened in 1994 (along with a note to the potentially fearful that the tuberculosis that felled the wife wouldn’t affect anyone currently viewing the show).

The interactive portions throughout play to both adults and young people, with quizzes on mummification procedures/terms, videos asking via multiple choice how someone died, and detailed X-rays and 3D CAT scans explaining how the cause of death was determined. There’s one part of the exhibit that engages the sense of touch, providing the sensation of bandage, the dry husk of embalmed flesh and the rubbery feel of bog skin. There are time-lapse videos of animals and vegetables decomposing, allowing you to dial past the swell and burst of decaying flesh quickly, in slow motion or even backward.

Whether any of this is intriguing to you at all is, of course, dependent on your sensibility. The 1.5 millionth visitor occasionally took his mother’s hand, let go at others, rushing forward and pressing his face against the housing protecting the bodies. He asked quiet, insistent questions, as his mom answered what she could after reading the very accessible curation, as well as reminded him to not touch the glass.0x000AYour experience is likely to be similar.

Afraid of death? Take someone’s hand, as every corner you turn will be a reminder of things to come. Fascinated? Get a glimpse of what has happened to others, all in the safety of scientific detachment. This important exhibition—and the 90 minutes it takes to walk through—demystifies life and death, leaving the fearful a tad less scared and the wary more reconciled about the inevitable as they head into the afternoon sunshine.

“Mummies of the World” at Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 567-3600; Open Tues.-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Through Sept. 5. $10-$27; children younger than 3, free. Because of demand, the museum recommends purchasing tickets in advance via

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