Field Museum "Mummies" | Exhibition review

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Opening the Vaults: Mummies at the Field Museum

Opening the Vaults: Mummies at the Field Museum Photograph: Ron Testa/The Field Museum

I took a peek at the Field Museum's much-anticipated "Opening the Vaults: Mummies," opening Friday. It's interesting to know the exhibit was actually an impromptu happening. Back in June, museum staffers pulled out the fragile mummies—from Ancient Egypt and the Incan empire—for CT scans. By November, staffers decided the CT scans and rarely displayed mummies would make a great show, and the exhibition was hastily put together.


That quick thinking might have been the key to such a wonderful exhibit. Dramatic, old wooden cases from the museum's early-20th-century displays pack a small temporary exhibition space. Some of the 20-plus very fragile mummies and mummy-like bundles—only on display until April 22—weren't even removed from their storage crates. As a result, it feels as if you're walking through an earlier time when Ancient Egypt held an air of mystery, and learning about it promised to reveal insights about the history of humankind. (The bird soundtrack, we could do without.)


The CT scans—taken in one week inside a portable scanner parked in the museum's West Lot—add to the exhibit, without causing it to lose that old-fashioned air of mystery. (As early as the 1930s, the museum X-rayed its mummies). I spoke with J.P. Brown, a museum conservator, who said the CT results revealed several surprises. Many of the mummies, obtained around the time of the World's Fair, have never been unwrapped; scientists feared ruining the artifacts. So the CT scans spotted several unknown details, such as strands of hair and the genitals of a mummy whose gender was previously unknown (for the record, it's a boy).


Brown told me he was so excited about the week with the CT scanner, donated by a Northern Illinois radiology equipment company, that he "would have slept in it, if my wife would've let me." In this exhibition, that curiosity and raw enthusiasm really shows. 


Tickets cost $22, seniors and students $18, kids ages 4–11 $15. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to fieldmuseum.org.



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