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11/23/09

Ongoing: The Accidental Mummies of Guanajuato by DC-In-Detroit



DC is a longtime contributor to the MCB
She can be reached at DC.in.Detroit [at] gmail.com





ACCIDENTAL MUMMIES of GUANAJUATO • Now Through April 11, 2010

Detroit Science Center



Last week, the Detroit Science Center invited MCB to come down and have a gawk at their new exhibit, The Accidental Mummies of Guanajuato.

Let's talk first of all about how cool it is that this exhibit's worldwide tour is kicking off in Detroit. The mummies have their own museum in Mexico, but the group has been packed up for three years on the road. We know a little about empty husks in our old town here, and these are every bit as graceful as anything you'd find on West Grand.

The DSC has customized the upper level of the center -- where I had personally never been -- for the 10,000 sq. ft. exhibit. On first entering, you get a feel for what the Guanajuato area cemetery is like today, with the extensive, stacked crypts, which have been recreated and decorated by Detroit volunteers. Rather than the somber experience we're accustomed to here in the U.S., the cemetery is bright and, dare I say, lived-in. It doesn't hurt that some of it is currently decorated for Dia de los Muertos. Skeletons rarely get more cheery. And talk to Carlos while you're in the cemetery. He's got wisdom.

In the main section of the gallery, the majority of the (glass-cased) mummies are displayed upright, contrary to how they were interred and mummified. This gives the visitor a chance to see them face-to-face, as it were, as well as in 360°. Information about the lives of the individuals (largely theorized, as most of these people were peasants with no documentation) is posted nearby, along with forensic recreation sketches of how they looked in life. And more on this in a moment, as it's one of the most interesting parts of the entire exhibit.

The mummies on display originated from several segments of society, although all were exhumed during the same time period, in the mid-1800s. They are displayed just as they were found -- some completely without clothes, many with only their socks, and a few with clearly visible braids and decorative accents. The adults ring the walls of the main room of the exhibit, having died ranging from their teens to, in the extraordinary case of "The Witch," their 70s.

I mention the adults because, yes, there is a display of infant mummies as well. Truth be told, this was one of my favorite parts of the exhibit.

Infant mortality is a fact of life, albeit one we tend not to want to look at directly. The little mummies here are displayed with the same reverence with which they were laid to rest, but what's especially interesting is their accoutrement -- one displays a vivid red, stuffed sacred heart, while another still clutches the doll with which she was entombed.

The far end of the exhibit is where the science gets to happening. Because of the curious way in which these bodies were mummified -- purely through accidental conditions -- their physiology was generally untouched. To get a deeper view -- and understanding -- of the mummies, several specimens were given full-body CT scans here at Oakwood in Dearborn, with the resulting images displayed on large video screens near replica labs. There were also extensive x-rays and, for extra fun, endoscopy of the body cavities. And yes, that is a giant spider nest in that abdomen. Also on display is a reconstruction of the facial structure of one of the mummies, created by a forensic artist, with a clay build-up on a replicated skull. It's fascinating on both a scientific and humanizing level.

There's nothing particular squeamish about this exhibit, although it will certainly tickle one's morbid fancies. The mummies are displayed with enough matter-of-factness to avoid seeming exploitative, including the cluster of infants. Still, I wouldn't say that it's an easy go for the terribly faint of heart. Not that we have many of those readers here, of course. But you've been warned. By which I mean, go see this exhibit!