The British Museum is home to the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities anywhere outside of Egypt. In a rare treat, the Hong Kong Science Museum is partnering with the world’s oldest museum to present Eternal Life: Exploring Ancient Egypt and bring six mummies to town so Hongkongers can learn all about life and death in ancient Egypt.
Here for five months, each mummy has been carefully chosen out of a collection of 120 from the British Museum. With a balance of males and females and different eras, each mummy is presented as a unique individual alongside objects that help illuminate different themes such as health, disease, beauty and childhood.
What’s most exciting about this exhibition is its interactive aspect. Curators at the British Museum have transformed CT scans into digital 3D models and renderings, which have been placed throughout the exhibition. With the help of a touchpad and screen, visitors can ‘peel’ back the layers of bandages adorning the mummies to peek at the nervous system, discover how experts determine a mummy’s age and sex, and learn how they were prepared for the afterlife.
Dr Marie Vandenbeusch, Dr Daniel Antoine and the Keeper of Ancient Egypt and Sudan of the British Museum Dr Neal Spence, the curators of the exhibition, chat to us about the most surprising discoveries on show…
How did the exhibition come together? It’s a very unusual way of doing an exhibition because most exhibitions at the British Museum are based on the work of a specialist — a specialist who works on a culture or a type of object for a decade, then goes on to write a book on it and present an exhibition on it. This exhibition, on the other hand, the ideas and themes and stories only came about once the scanning started. It’s almost the reverse form of a traditional exhibition.
And how did you select these six mummies? It was quite tricky. It’s a combination of whether the mummy could travel or not and what we could tell with the stories that we have. We have several men and several women, but we also wanted to have at least a few mummies who have known names so the audience can relate to them a bit more. And for ancient Egyptians, repeating the name of somebody after their death allows them to continue to live in the afterlife. If you come to the exhibition, please say the names out loud because it will allow them to live forever, according to their beliefs.
How has CT technology changed what we know about how ancient Egyptians lived? We had quite a limited amount of information before with X-rays. CT scans takes thousands of images and what you see is really limitless. There are two layers to it — the fabrics and textile of the bandages, and the skin and bones. We were quite surprised by the cardiovascular disease we discovered. We didn’t know it was present in ancient Egypt. I’m sure if we scan the same mummies in another 10 years with the next generation of CT scanners we’re going to discover even more new information.
What did you want audiences to take away from the exhibition? It’s about what we would call a ‘live experience’ and what life was like in ancient Egypt. What’s specific to this exhibition is that it tells us about life. It covers everything from dental pain to the gritty bread they’re eating to cardiovascular diseases to death. It gives a little glimpse into Egyptian society that we can relate to. The other key aspect is individuality. We want audiences to learn that these mummies are individuals, that they all look different, they experienced different lives and different careers, and the way their bodies were prepared [was different].
With Tom Cruise’s new Mummy film just out, why do you think Egyptology has remained so fascinating? We believe the main reason is that it’s seen as something exotic and otherworldly. There are animal-headed gods, there’s wrapping people for mummification to be preserved forever. That seems strange to us, but thanks to the preservation of things like toys, clothing, letters, the proceedings of trials, marriage agreements and so on, that’s something we can relate to. That’s why ancient Egypt survives in the public imagination. There’s also this belief in the afterlife. And thanks to mummification, as well as the dry and hot climate of Egypt, all the things we mentioned survived to this day. To be able to look at the face of a person, from such a distant place, reminds us of our common humanity and allows us to connect with them as more than just a skeleton.