Monday, 7 February 2011

Penn Museum show opens, minus mummies

What do you do when the museum show you've been planning for 18 months loses out on the very Chinese artifacts it was supposed to showcase, including two mummies?
You build "dummy mummies" - as the curatorial consultant called them - that look as close to the real thing as possible.
That's what the enterprising staff at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has done, as the museum continues to negotiate the display of the antiquities with the Chinese government.
The much-anticipated "Secrets of the Silk Road" exhibition opened Saturday with several hundred patrons in attendance.
The display featured extensive story line and visual presentations about the Silk Road - 4,000 miles of ancient trade routes that connected China with the West. Three live camels also were on hand for the opening events.
But absent were the actual Chinese artifacts. Hence, the mummy-making.
"This is my Plan B," said Kate Quinn, director of exhibits. "We had to do something. We had so much invested in this."
Quinn learned about two weeks ago that the Chinese government had disallowed the uncrating of the 120 Chinese artifacts to be featured in the 6,000-square-foot exhibition.

A university source said that regional authorities in Xinjiang in western China had given approval, but that Beijing cultural authorities had not. University officials had announced Wednesday that the show would go on in a modified format.
In a frenzy during the last week, Quinn's nine-member staff blew up catalog shots and computer images of pottery, masks, jewelry, coins, and the other antiquities on a large-scale printer. They carefully cut them out and mounted them in the special display cases and spaces where the real objects would have sat.
It was a maddening task, knowing the real objects were in the same room with them, locked in crates, Quinn said.
To build the mummies, workers researched images from different vantage points. Luckily, they had a carpenter on staff, Benjamin Neiditz, who likes to build mummies in his spare time, Quinn said.
For the female mummy called "Beauty of Xiaohe," they bought fabrics at a local store for her blanket and hat, and made her boots out of deerskin fur and her body from papier mache. They also built an infant mummy, swaddled in a felt blanket.
"We wanted to represent all of the objects that we could in some way," Quinn said. "It was a research journey."
Still, without the originals, staff decided not to charge a higher admission price as originally planned. Those who visit will pay the regular price, which is $10 for adults. Patrons who paid a higher price in advance are being issued refunds. Nearly 570 people attended the show Saturday, fewer than the 700 to 1,000 that had been expected.
Richard Hodges, Williams Director of the Penn Museum, and Victor H. Mair, a Chinese language and literature professor, catalog editor, and curatorial consultant to the exhibit, said negotiations were continuing for display of the real objects, which range from 700 to 3,800 years old.
They told visitors just before opening doors to the show that they hoped to have good news within a few days or a few weeks.
"We are obviously very, very saddened . . .," Hodges said, "but it's a story that's not over yet."
Mair estimated an 80 percent chance that permission would be secured, Quinn said.
The exhibit, previously shown at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Calif., and the Houston Museum of Natural Science, runs through June 5.
Visitors who braved ice and rain to attend Saturday said they were a bit disappointed they couldn't see the actual Chinese objects, but were impressed by the staff's efforts to preserve the show.
"I actually think they've done a wonderful job even though they don't have the actual mummies," said Robert Leavens of Medford. "My daughter's afraid of mummies anyway."
Moy Leavens, 9, peered hesitantly at the fake "Beauty" lying in the glass case with long brown hair running out from under her hat.
"They're just scary," she said.
Sha'Quan Johnson, 14, drove seven hours with her mentor, Carrie Lewis, a teacher, from Lynchburg, Va., to see the display. She wasn't disappointed.
"If they hadn't told me, I probably would have thought they were real," she said.
She came with Lewis to do research for her ninth-grade project on the Silk Road.
Josh Abbell of Philadelphia said he had brought his family for the educational activities, including music, storytelling, games, and crafts. His son, Julian, 3, wanted to see the three camels, which will walk the museum grounds again Sunday but not be part of the continuing exhibit.
Abbell wasn't aware of the controversy: "The mummies aren't here?"

Source: Susan Snyder from

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