They came to us with names they were given. Some came wearing clothing, a suit, a soldier’s uniform, a lace gown. Some wore only socks or shoes. Some were old. Others were infants. We gave them their personae, based on guesswork, and the prerogatives of our work at the Detroit Science Center: to create a national touring exhibit celebrating their history, science and culture.
There was Rosi, the beautiful, and Lulu, the gossip. There were the Miners. And Roberto and Gloria, who once lived in a hacienda. There was sweet little Magnolia, and tall Simon . . . Sarita, Ara, Mima, the dancers and singers, and the “Toothless One,” and the one with magical powers they call La Bruja, the Witch. Altogether they numbered 36. An astonishing 36 mummies, never seen before outside of Mexico, from an old mining town called Guanajuato.
Freaks of nature. “Accidental mummies” we call them -- meaning they were not wrapped in linen, embalmed or preserved in any way. These were ordinary people who had been laid to rest in a municipal cemetary, and by circumstance of desert air and placement in airtight crypts, their bodies dehydrated - rather than decayed.
Like raisins in the sun. Like leaves fallen from a tree.
The Accidental Mummies of Guanajuato on exhibit at the Detroit Science Center (soon to move to another venue) are on loan from the collection of 119 mummies in El Museo de las Momias, where more than a half million people visit each year. Their story has become something of lore - a series of curious bodies exhumed from the walls of the tombs between the years 1865-1958, removed as relatives failed to pay a grave tax of 50 pecos or so. The mummies were collected in the basement of the cemetary ossuary, where caretakers started to charge admission to a steady stream of gawkers early in the 1900’s. Today the mummies peacefully reside in a sleek museum, a central attraction, where visitors are greeted with kitch and candy skeletons and the words:
“Do not be afraid. They are only cocoons. The butterflies have flown away.”
Past the shock - the ick factor - of seeing your first mummy is a startling recognition of an individual, once living and breathing. Just like you. At closer look at hands and sinews, fingers and toes, empty eye sockets and gaping mouth, you get the eeriest sensation that even in death there’s energy still in the body. Who was this person? How did they live, and how did they die? What secrets are written in their bones?
Do I sound obsessed, haunted, morbid, slightly mad? Hard as it is for me to believe in retrospect, last summer I spent almost every waking hour thinking about mummies, researching mummies, photographing mummies, even moving them. (Creeping out my family and colleagues.) Not so much by choice, but by some sense of productivity. In my mind, working on this exhibit was a once-in-a-life opportunity to help build something unique and extraordinary. My particular assignment was to create the content for a forensic science lab, a gallery where visitors would explore the methodologies used in mummy study. Whoah, I’m no scientist, but by default I took up the role of “curator” of sorts, investigator set loose on the assignment, consulting with experts in the field -- anthropologists, radiologists and foresic scientists who had spent years studying our collection -- all too happy to oblige us in providing new radiographic, endoscopic, and CT studies for the purpose of our exhibit displays. Heady stuff!
Turns out, mummies are great teachers. Studying them. Imagining them as they lived, looking after them, and weirdly “caring” for them, can be oddly peaceful--almost sacred work. Like tending a garden in some long forgotten past, talking to ghosts.
Was there a deal struck with the devil to bring the mummies of Guanajuato to Detroit? No doubt there were plans to make a profit, if not a killing at the gate. Is our beautiful exhibit, “celebrating the life and lore and culture” of Mexico, “for real?” As a dreamer-catcher and writer in the transaction, I am but an instrument playing to the audience, guilty as charged for being unaware or insenstivie to the machinations or the process that put the living dead in lit cabinets in their present state of stalemate. The fate of our mummies on tour has yet to be sealed. Their next destination is unknown. Could there be a more existential state of affairs? 36 lost souls with no place to go, but back to their homeland, back to their graves.
As the curator of the museum in Mexico warned us, knowing mummies can get under your skin. They are still people. Not museum artifacts. Call it respect. Reverence. Empathy. A human connection. I will miss their gentle faces, astonished, agonized, ravaged, moth-eaten, and grisly as they seem to others, they have become strangely familiar to me. And though I've never heard a peep out of any one of them, there were those among the staff that thought they did. There were those who said blessings every time they entered the gallery. And there’s Maria, the shopkeeper who operated the gallery store filled with beautiful Mexican crafts and art objects - she swears she returned after closing one evening to retrieve some items when she heard whistling -- long, lost strains of an old Mexican tune -- a lullaby, out of nowhere.
About accidental mummies some things just can’t be explained.