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Mummy exhibit inspires respect, curiosity

People are dying to see the mummies.

More than 14,000 tickets have been sold for "Mummies of the World" opening Friday at Discovery Place, three times the advance sales for 2007's "Body Worlds," the most-attended exhibition in the museum's 30-year history. With 150 mummies - including one of a child 3,000 years older than King Tut - the show has drawn record crowds in Philadelphia and other cities.

But the practice of displaying human remains comes with ethical questions rooted in religious, cultural and moral standards.

Some of the world's biggest religions, including Hinduism and Judaism, consider such displays a sacrilege. Since 1990, federal law has required researchers possessing bones of Native Americans to return them to tribes for burial. Egypt remains in a decades-long dispute with Great Britain, demanding the return of mummies in the British Museum procured during the era of imperialism.

In Jewish rituals, the dead are not embalmed and are preferably buried within a day in such a way that the remains will return to the soil as soon as possible, says Rabbi Barbara Thiede of Concord, who lectures on religion at UNC Charlotte.

Displaying a body after death is a taboo, she says, though Jews respect the traditions of other cultures. Likewise, they would not necessarily consider an exhibition of the dead for museum or educational purposes an affront, she says.

However, displaying bodies of those who have not given consent is troubling to her.

"You're confronted with this difficult moral and ethical issue - do you go and support it or do you not? These are questions that come up now in ways 50 years ago we weren't sensitive to."

'Great dignity, deference'

A year before the exhibit arrived in Los Angeles in 2010, the California Science Center's Ethics Advisory Council discussed the issues of the mummies, most held in institutional collections for a century or more and acquired when the collection of archaeological objects and human specimens was a common practice. It decided to support the show, citing both scientific value and the careful handling of the remains.

"We present 'Mummies of the World' recognizing that ethical guidelines of global museum partnerships demand that human remains are treated with respect and dignity," the council said in a statement.

"We treat these objects with great dignity, deference and respect," says Marc Corwin, president of American Exhibitions Inc., which is operating the national tour. In some cases, descendants of the more recently mummified have given their blessing to the exhibition, he said.

One is Manfred Baron von Crailsheim of Ansbach, Germany. In 1806, the naturally mummified remains of his ancestor, Baron von Holz, were discovered in the family crypt of Sommersdorf Castle. Von Holz was a 17th-century nobleman believed to have died during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). He was entombed in expensive leather boots that appear to have never been worn in life.

With him was his wife, the Baroness Schenck von Geiern, who is also in the exhibition. Von Crailsheim, a retired physician, attended the show in Los Angeles and was pleased by its scientific nature.

Mummies lost and found

"Mummies of the World" arrived in Charlotte last week with a theatrical flair. Six men in dark suits and sunglasses formed a "security detail" to escort them into Discovery Place, then melted away after TV cameras left.

Theatrics are nothing new to mummies. They have long held a fascination in popular culture, particularly in cinema. Boris Karloff's "The Mummy" debuted in 1932, taking advantage of mythology surrounding the so-called curse of King Tut's tomb, a global sensation when unearthed in Egypt a decade earlier. A multitude of mummy movies followed, including a 1999 remake starring Brendan Fraser that did well enough at the box office to sire two sequels.

"Mummies of the World" has its own dramatic origins. In 2004, a strange crate was discovered in a vault beneath the Reiss-Englhorn Museums in Mannheim, Germany, during a renovation. A researcher was curious what it held.

"He popped the top off, and there were mummies," says Heather Gill-Frerking, research curator with the Reiss-Englhorn. "He was very surprised."

Museum records were searched and the mystery was resolved. In 1917, heirs of the artist Gabriel von Max had donated the collection of 20 mummies to the museum. They were thought to have been lost during the chaos of World War II.

Science defies time

Scientists soon began to study the remains with modern forensic methods. What came to be known as the German Mummy Project used computer tomography, MRIs, radio carbon dating and DNA analysis to learn the mummies' stories.

Researchers were able to study the mummies without unwrapping them and with a minimum of invasive techniques, project leaders say. Mummies were soon gathered from other institutions across Europe for examination.

Tests told much: Diet, age, cause of death and even religious origin were detailed. A healed scar on the chest of a tattooed woman from Chile mummified 800 years ago showed that she was well-cared-for in life and probably benefited from whatever medical knowledge was available, Gill-Frerking says.

Examination of what is known as the Orlovits family mummies - father, mother and 1-year-old son found in a crypt in Hungary in 1994 - showed they were probably victims of an epidemic in the early 1800s called the "white plague," known today as tuberculosis.

Signs of respect

Gill-Frerking says the German Mummy Project is internationally recognized for its dignified approach. "I work hard to treat these mummies as a family member," she says.

Visitors get a three-minute orientation video before entering. "We don't present it in such a way that you walk right in and, wham, you're face to face with a mummy," she says.

Light, temperature and humidity are controlled to guard against damage. No cellphones or photography are permitted. During the exhibition in Los Angeles, 50 percent of the visitors were families with children.

John Mackay, Discovery Place's president, says the exhibit is engineered so people can make a personal connection with the specimens, while stressing the science involved. "You come to understand that these are people with real stories."

Mackay says prior exhibitions of "Body Worlds" and "Pompeii" have taught the museum staff that the public has an intense curiosity about the mysteries of death, on several levels.

"People are interested in connecting with the afterlife," he says. "Here they can do that on both the scientific and spiritual level."