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Mummy secrets unwrapped

Six mummies are the stars at an exhibition on life and afterlife of ancient Egypt at the ArtScience Museum
The Straits Times - April 26, 2013
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Mummy secrets unwrapped
By Deepika Shetty, Arts Correspondent

Mummies have evoked awe, fear and mystery in movies, but they tell a much bigger story too - one of life and the afterlife.

If you are curious about mummies and missed their earlier appearances at museums here, the ArtScience Museum's Mummy: Secrets Of The Tomb gives you another chance for close encounters of the Egyptian kind.

Opening on Saturday, the visually stunning exhibition's star attractions are six mummies, including that of two animals. These are among more than 100 artefacts from the heralded ancient Egyptian collection of the British Museum. While other pieces from this collection came to the Asian Civilisations Museum in 1999, this current show is more tightly focused on the world of priests and the cult of the dead.

The storyline is centred on that of Nesperennub, an Egyptian temple priest who lived 3,000 years ago.

His mummy, coffin and a 3-D film voiced by acclaimed British actor Patrick Stewart bring to life that story. His mummy - like others in museums - is no longer physically unwrapped because it is a destructive, irreversible process.

ArtScience museum curator Lise Macdonald, who has been working closely with the British Museum, hopes that visitors will gain insights into the great Egyptian civilisation, its people's "fascination with life, living and the importance they placed on afterlife".

The mummy of Nesperennub provides the perfect connecting thread to reconstruct the life of past societies, says DrJohn Taylor, 65, who is assistant keeper of the British Museum's department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, as well as curator of this exhibition.

He adds in an e-mail interview: "The story of his life and death, as presented in the 3-D film, opens a window to the ancient past, which we hope will fascinate and inspire visitors of all ages."

Having visited the United States, Europe, Japan, India and Australia, Neperennub is now the most widely travelled ancient Egyptian in the world and has drawn almost 1.5 million visitors globally.

London's British Museum holds one of the world's finest collections of artefacts from ancient Egypt and is at the forefront of research in the field of Egyptology.

It was in 2004 that the museum undertook a unique project to unlock the secrets of the 3,000-year-old mummy.

Through "virtual unwrapping" using cutting-edge computed-tomography scanning technology and computer visualisation techniques, museum experts were able "to see inside the mummy, without disturbing the exquisite cartonnage or delicate material surrounding the mummy".

This project resulted in an extraordinary virtual-reality experience presented in the exhibition, which begins with the film about the mummy's secrets voiced by Stewart. The exhibition also includes a dramatic reconstruction of how Nesperennub may have looked.

The ancient Egyptian belief in life after death is represented not just through the mummies, but also in the care extended to objects people would need in the afterlife.

To complete the story, artefacts such as ritual temple vessels, statuettes of the Egyptian gods Amun-Ra - king of the gods - and Seth, who represents forces of chaos and disorder, show the religious beliefs behind ancient Egyptian funerary practices.

In addition, there are workshops and activities on ancient Egyptian embalming practices and specially designed puzzles and games for children.

As Ms Macdonald says: "Through all of this, we want to show that these elaborate burial practices did not mean that Egyptians were preoccupied with death. This probably sprang from their delight in living and in the ability to enjoy the good things in the afterlife."

Through compelling artefacts with religious and historical significance, visitors learn about the religious and cultural beliefs behind ancient Egyptian mummification techniques, burial rituals and the civilisation's desire for immortality.

This is not the first time that mummies have travelled to Singapore.

In February 1999, the highlight of the Eternal Egypt: Treasures From The British Museum exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum was a 2,800-year-old female mummy.

In 2010, more than 110,000 visited the Quest For Immortality - The World Of Ancient Egypt at the National Museum, which included three human and seven animal mummies from the Egyptian and Near Eastern collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna.

The ArtScience Museum has not set a visitorship target for its show, but these embalmed bodies and highly decorated coffins are expected to be a big draw.

deepikas@sph.com.sg

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