Words, Julia Johnson, Messy Lines
Most people’s understanding and recognition of the Ancient Egyptians is linked to death. Sarcophagi, pyramids, journeys through the underworld – they seem to have been obsessed by it. Understandable, really, in a society where the average life expectancy was early 30s. It’s a story that’s been covered in so many exhibitions, so it’s hard to imagine where a new perspective could come from.
So all credit to the World Museum, working with the University of Manchester, for abandoning the expected and not giving humans even a look-in at an exhibition about mummies. The story of animal mummification is little-known, but its significance to the Egyptians is attested by their sheer numbers. Various displays talk of whole pits, containing millions of mummified birds, cats and crocodiles. So many that they were used by Victorian tourists as everything from souvenirs to soil fertilizer.
The artefacts on display here are certainly fascinating. The fact that these ancient people took the time to wrap and decorate these animals tells us something about the significance they gave to these offerings. Indeed, the biggest issue with this show is that it does little to explain precisely why they did this. Apart from a denouncement of the belief that the Egyptians worshipped animals literally, it’s not really explored. “Gifts for the Gods” is one thing, but why so many? Were they offered at times other than death, or given as tribute for those who could not afford full mummification?
What the show is really good at is revealing the mummies, and the archaeological processes that make this possible. This being the World Museum there are lots of interactive exhibitions designed to appeal to children, but which are fascinating for all ages (and who doesn’t enjoy pushing the buttons?). You learn about how the mummies can be explored without having damage caused, and get the same perspective as the experts on how their contents are revealed. It’s these processes which make exhibitions like this possible, and it’s good to have them brought into focus here.
It’s easy to think that the World Museum is just for children, but this show carries on from last year’s excellent Mayan exhibition by appealing to all ages and intellects. Whether you’re filled with awe by the age of these objects, or intrigued by their strangeness, there is something here worth discovering.