Mummy’s The Word with Upcoming Mummies Exhibit at Field Museum

JP Brown, Conservator at the Field Museum, with a collection of Egyptian mummies. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

Mummy’s the word at the Field Museum these days, but it’s not a secret anymore. In its 125th year, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago is shaking things up – retooling Stanley Field Hall to accommodate hanging gardens and a gigantic titanosaur cast as well as creating a private suite for everyone’s favorite T. Rex and Twitter tour de force SUE the T. Rex set to open in 2019. It doesn’t stop at renovations though, as the Field Museum has exciting new exhibitions to debut, beginning with March 16th‘s Mummies. We headed to the Regenstein Lab at the Field Museum and talked to Conservator JP Brown and Janet Hong, Exhibitions Manager, about the upcoming exhibit, and got a sneak peek of what’s to come at the same time.  

A crocodile mummy used for sacrifice to the gods in return for their favor. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

The Mummies exhibit is a special one for the Field Museum for a few reasons. Chief among them is that this exhibit was realized fully on the strength of the Field Museum’s collections alone. Every object found in the exhibit, which will look at both Egyptian and Peruvian mummification techniques and the culture and people that shaped them, comes from the Field Museum’s own vast stores.  

“We’re very fortunate that we have such strong collections in these two areas. Mummies features the two most interesting mummification traditions in the world- from Ancient Egypt and Peru…and we’re presenting them in a 7000 square foot exhibit,” says Hong. 

And in this case, they’ve already had some practice. In an unusual move for any museum, The Field Museum sent Mummies to travel other places – LA, New York and two other cities—before it lands at home in Chicago.  

“It wasn’t easy,” Janet says, chuckling, but with a look of remembered exasperation…”and I’m not sure we’d do that again. We created the exhibition to travel first. We planned it that way so it could be here for the 125th anniversary of our museum, because it is a really core part of our collection.” The hard work is about to pay off, with Mummies reaching home and ready for the limelight on March 16, where it will stay until late April 2019.  

Various animal mummies from Ancient Egypt include a falcon, crocodile, and several cats. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

What really brings the exhibit to life though, is the same thing that makes the Field Museum so exciting once you get behind the scenes—active science. JP Brown, who was on hand showing us the various animal mummies, which include neo-natal crocodiles, cats, falcons and gazelles, originated the project with another curator. All of the mummies you’ll see in the Mummies exhibit – and likely for the Field, some you won’t–were sent through a CT scanner to be studied back in 2011 and 2012, and when the scans came back, incredible details were revealed that were never able to be seen before. 

3 cat mummies – one of which is a rare form of fake that contains leather, sand and bones–from a chicken. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

Mummies features all different types of specimens- including fakes. But there’s a catch – actual fakes, it turns out, are quite rare. What’s much more common were a sort of “Walmart special” fake mummy sold to poorer Egyptians as sacrifices for the gods, who couldn’t afford the “Lord and Taylor” genuine article, Brown explained. These are numerous, and easy to spot upon handling, since they’re only shaped like the animals they’re intended to be, and don’t weigh nearly as much or feel at all the same. Other fakes that contained real bones, sand and leather came later, and were mostly used to fool people into buying fake artifacts.  

JP Brown, Conservator at the Field Museum, with a collection of Egyptian mummies. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

And there were even more discoveries–“You can just tell these great details about these people- who the people were and how they lived. What did they die of, how old were they? Did they have curly hair?” Hong continues excitedly.  

That wasn’t all for the new technology involved. One of Janet’s favorite parts of the exhibition comes to life thanks to 3D Printing.  

“A lot of the sculptures that are buried with Peruvian mummies are really beautiful,” she says. “To me, it’s really moving that people make such beautiful artworks to fold in a mummy for somebody’s kid or somebody’s mom to send them off into the afterlife…and because we have such complete information from sending them through the scanner, we were able to make exact replicas of the artworks buried with these mummies. It’s a little unnerving, actually, because you can touch these things that are inside the mummy and know they’re exact replicas. These are details you can’t see from looking at the mummy.” 

It’s this look at mummies from such a strong anthropological perspective that has us most excited to see Mummies when it debuts. Fascinating facts abound and provide amazing insight into the people who lived and eventually died within the confines of these traditions, and the facts (and specimens) speak to the culture and individuals in an intimate, relatable way, from the social stratas of Egypt revealed by both the human and animal mummies to the family-centric traditions in Peru. And you’ll relate to their stories, thousands of years later, which in my book makes an experience with Mummies at the Field truly priceless.  

Mummies will open at the Field Museum on March 16 and run through April 24, 2019. You can find out more about the exhibit and plan a visit to see it here. 



Marielle Bokor
Marielle Bokor