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Ancient Egyptian mummies travel digitally to Milan

On September 13th the exhibition “EGYPT -The extraordinary discovery of Pharaoh Amenhotep II” will open at the Mudec Museum of Cultures in Milan. The exhibition will include an interactive Inside Explorer exhibit were the visitors will be able to explore mummies from the famous collection of Rijksmuseum van Oudheden.  In this post we have invited Hanneke Kik, project manager, and Dr. Lara Weiss, curator, to tell about the museums long history of non-invasive mummy analysis research work and how they use Inside Explorer to create new permanent and traveling exhibitions.

Ancient Egyptian mummies travel digitally to Milan

The Egyptian collection of the National Museum of Antiquities is one of the top 10 Egyptian collections in the world. The Leiden collection of human and animal mummies, dating from the Third Intermediate Period to the Greaco-Roman Period (c. 943 BCE to 200 AD) is especially well known. The collection consists of a large number of well-preserved mummies: 31 human mummies, 28 parts of human mummies, and 72 animal mummies. Unique about the Leiden collection – and indeed the reason the mummies are so well-preserved – is that the museum’s first director soon realized that mummies should not be unwrapped.

Unwrapping mummies for scientific purposes was common practice in the 19th century , but it was also entertainment for audiences consisting of scientists, archaeologists, and members of the elite. The linen wrappings were more or less carefully removed, revealing the contours of the body and the amulets placed between the strips of cloth. Once uncovered, the body was further examined. Unwrapping mummies, however, leads to their decay.

Therefore the first director of the National Museum of Antiquities, Professor Caspar Reuvens, was opposed to this unwrapping of Egyptian mummies after a first attempt. He realized that the unwrapping was irreversible and he imagined less invasive methods of researching mummies in the future.The discovery of x-rays was indeed a first step in non-invasive mummy analysis. As compared to today, the images were somewhat grainy and unclear, yet also in the early years bone structure and amulets were easy to see.

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Early x-ray examination of a mummy at National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, 1964. © Rijksmuseum van Oudheden
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A 3D CT scans of the mummies made at Academisch Medisch Centrum 2016 in Amsterdam using a high-end Philips scanner. © Rijksmuseum van Oudheden

In the 1990s the CT-scans had improved and the images taken of the Leiden mummies were fairly clear. In fact, the National Museum of Antiquities was the first museum in the world to scan and study its whole mummy collection, both human mummies and animal mummies. The project was a cooperation between the Academic Medical Center Amsterdam  and Philips and resulted in a publication in 2005 which is still a standard work for mummy research.

When the renovation of the Egyptian permanent galleries started in 2015, the museum decided to make new scans of two mummies, the mummy of the priest Anchhor and a large crocodile mummy, in order to allow the visitors a digital autopsy.The quality of the scans have much improved in the past two decades and Inside Explorer from Swedish Interspectral allowed to visualize the data in unprecedented ways. New insights were not expected, as the whole Leiden mummy collection had been studied in detail in the 1990s. However, the higher resolution of the scans, the 3D digitization, and interactive visualization made many new details visible.

The most exciting discovery were 43 baby crocodile mummies found wrapped inside the crocodile mummy. An absolute bonus to this way of making scan data available, is that they can easily be integrated in travelling exhibitions via easy to use interactive digital 3D experiences, giving in depth information to the visitor.

Visualised with Inside Explorer by Interspectral.
The three-metre-long mummified Egyptian ‘giant crocodile‘ contained 43 baby crocodile mummies. © Interspectral
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The Inside Explorer exhibit let the visitors to the museum explore  the mummies via a touch screen which is placed in front of the showcase in which the mummies are displayed.

Professor Reuvens has been proven right: today, mummies can be studied without so much as touching them, and audiences from over the world can share in the spectacular discoveries made through the Inside Explorer by Interspectral. At the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden visitors can explore the mummies of Anchhor and the crocodile mummy via a touch screen which is placed in front of the showcase in which the mummies are displayed. The mummies and scans are an important educational part of the permanent galleries, and will remain so for many years to come.

While these specific mummies will not travel outside of the museum due to their importance within the permanent galleries, the virtual representation can travel. This can be seen in the upcoming exhibition ‘Egitto. La straordinaria scoperta del Faraone Amenofi II’, which will be on show at the MUDEC in Milan from September 13th 2017 till January 7th 2018. Although the mummies of Anchhor are still in Leiden, visitors can still explore these mummies through the Inside Explorer interactive in the exhibition, learning about mummification and ancient Egyptian beliefs with the help of modern day technology.

This post was written by:
Ms Hanneke Kik, Project manager exhibition, National Museum of Antiquities
Dr. Lara Weiss, Curator Egypt, National Museum of Antiquities

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