Images of the Afterlife

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Rachel Thompson

Published on March 13, 2013

  • Museum: The Field Museum

  • Visit Date: January, 2013

  • Description:

    Tucked away in a corner of the Field Museum’s second floor, Images of the Afterlife reveals new information about two objects in the Chicago institution’s collection, mummies #30007 and #11517. By taking a page from forensic anthropology, this exhibit sheds new light on an old subject. Furthermore, by featuring mummies, Images of the Afterlife benefits from long-established fascinations with death and Ancient Egypt. With such content, this exhibit may attract first time visitors and museum members alike.

    After passing through a set of closed doors, reoriented visitors enter the dimly lit room that houses the entire exhibit. This somewhat somber setting features the most advanced technological approaches to the study of ancient bodies. Alongside the actual sarcophagi, with remains intact, are facial reconstructions of the individuals whose bodies are now on display. Additionally, the exhibit features CT scans, which allow visitors a detailed look at the occupants of the unopened coffins. Images of the Afterlife offering up every inch of the ancient bodies for public inspection, while leaving the remains physically undisturbed.

    In addition to highlighting the technological advances of forensic anthropology, the exhibit also underscores the fact that these museum objects were once living, breathing individuals. Mummy #30007 was a 40-year-old woman with curly hair who suffered from lower back pain. In an enlarged image of her CT scan, visitors can even see the shape of her curls that have remained in place thousands of years after her death. The other, mummy #111517, was named Minirdis and died while only in his teens. Images of his remains reveal that he was buried in a sarcophagus too large for his still-growing frame. This and other evidence suggests that the youth’s death was unexpected and likely the result of an accident.

    Although I am generally a bit squeamish about the display of human remains, I thought that this exhibit struck a balance between satiating natural human curiosity and maintaining respect for the individuals whose bodies are now on display. However, I did question the use of a video game controller as the device used to swivel and peel away the layers of the image of one of the mummy’s CT scans. I considered the use of the devise a bit too playful when comparing it to the otherwise respectful atmosphere of the exhibit.

    I also found that the physical space and location of the exhibit has its positives and negatives. With the entire exhibit taking up only a single room, Images of the Afterlife is no grand exhibition with room after room of objects and interactive displays. Although I appreciate the intimacy of the space and that a spectacle is not being made of the ancient bodies, the exhibit struck me as almost understated. If I had not been specifically looking for this exhibit, I would probably have walked right by. Other visitors have likely been doing the same as the door to the exhibit even has a sign on it stating that the gallery is open and that visitors are welcome. This is especially unfortunate as this relatively small exhibit, in its secluded and dimly lit location, offers an appealing alternative to the extravagant and large-scale blockbusters featured on the museum’s main floor.

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