I have been sitting on this blog for weeks, well it has been the summer holidays, lots to do, kids to entertain, beaches to sit on. Then I suddenly realised one of these exhibitions closes on the 7th Sept 2014, only one week of the holidays left to get your kids down to the Natural History Museum to meet Lubya, the baby woolly mammoth frozen in time. So certainly time for this blog to hatch out and give birth to a Mammoth Mummy Mashup! I enjoyed my Mashup blog so much last time that I had to do it again, two exhibitions in one day, comparing the two for a special blog review. This time I am taking in preserved mammoths at the Natural History Museum and preserved mummies at the British Museum a perfect combination, lots to compare and contrast.
I don’t think I have ever been to an exhibition at the Natural History Museum before, but I have a little thing for mammoths. In my local museum in Bromley we have a mammoth tooth and we also have some Ernest Griset paintings commissioned by John Lubbock (1834-1913), completed between 1869 and 1871, they are an early attempt to understand our pre-history. Half fantasy worlds and yet fired by a thirst to understand, at this exhibition I can leave behind the artistic interpretation to see the real thing.
The first thing to say is ‘Mammoths: Ice Age Giants’ is a great family friendly exhibition – there was lots to see, do and touch. I must have spent about 20 minutes just in the first section ‘people watching’ as visitors reacted and interacted with the exhibits. I watched a little boy with his grandmother, he came up to the models, explaining the different elephant and mammoth species, his hands outstretched, he must have been about 5 years old. He was learning and experiencing the exhibition through his hands, touching, touching, touching. His said to his Gran, “You can touch them… Why don’t you touch them?” She replied that she didn’t want to, I felt kind of sad for the little boy at this point, he wanted to share his experience but his Gran was intent on reading out facts and figures completely missing how he was learning through touch.
I had to have a little go as he instructed, it is important to make the most of every opportunity when visiting an exhibition. As we moved round there was even a sign encouraging visitors to touch, I think sometimes that explicit instruction is needed particularly for an older generation who are used to not being able to get hands on with museum objects. At this point the little guy was hugging the trunk of the Phiomia which was really rather a lovely moment.
As I stood and watched there was a French family, again another grandmother this time interpreting the information into French for her grandson and a grandfather taking pictures with an iPad, capturing the moment. I love the fact that, however an exhibition is laid out, how much information there is, regardless of the amount of technology involved, we still use our own ways to interpret what we see. The need to touch, to talk and explain and even to use our own technology, phones and cameras to preserve a moment, not just a visit, not just to say where we have been but an attempt to capture how we feel too.
With all this distraction it takes me a while to get to Lubya, but she is worth the wait. She is a rare preserved baby mammoth, buried quickly after death, fine sediment sealing in the oxygen, pickled by the acids formed by the bacteria that entered her body soon after death and then frozen in Siberia’s permafrost. She lived about 42,000 years ago and was found in 2007, she is quite frankly, a marvel. When you see her you are not interested in layers of interpretation and technological analysis you are just amazed that something could have survived from so long ago.
Then you take time to read and understand how the layers of technology, the DNA testing, the x-rays and CT-Scans have provided us with so much more of a story. She was in the womb 22 months, born early spring, 1 month old at death, even her stomach contents has been preserved, milk, pollen, grasses. I am quite excited by the fact there is an International Mammoth Committee, I wonder what you have to do to get on that!
You don’t need technology to form immediate reactions on seeing Lubya, but it makes the experience so much richer. I find the whole thing surprisingly affecting, not weird at all, I imagine Lubya gambolling around the plains of Siberia, she is really quite beautiful, a gift from the past.
When I was writing this blog I looked again at the Griset paintings and I came across this one below, it reminds me so much of Lubya, another way to interpret her, art and science etching her memory into my brain.
These reactions to preserved bodies will I know be tested a little more in the next exhibit I am visiting at the British Museum – Ancient Lives, New Discoveries. The title could really apply to both exhibitions, at the British Museum they have used technology to uncover the secrets of eight mummies, their lives uncovered and their bodies under scrutiny, from the naturally preserved like Lubya to bodies elaborately decorated, wrapped and preserved by the embalmer’s hand.
Mummies hold us enthralled, this strange custom, removing all that makes us human, the brain, the lungs, stomach and liver, the preserved body must survive death to enter the afterlife. I think of Lubya and these 8 bodies in front of me, they have succeeded by accident and design to reach the afterlife, an afterlife that consists of museum cases and sterile environments.
What first greets me at this exhibition is not what you expect a traditional mummy to look like. It is the body of a young man, naturally preserved in sand, no wrappings or sarcophagus, but bone and skin. As you are not allowed to take pictures in the exhibition, I recommend you look at the British Museum website for some fantastic pictures. The text accompanying the body talks of the scientific process of preservation, a process not so different from Lubya’s, the natural environment working as embalmer to preserve organs and body. I try to read but I am caught up by the sad, pitiful curled shape, so human, skin and bone like the mammoth but I find this challenging to look at, the hands in particular, almost pleading, the elbows touching knees.
I drag my eyes away and I am blown away by the technology, the CT scans are simply amazing. They show the insides of the body, the brain preserved, it allows me to forget for a moment my first reactions. I force myself to return to the body to try to dispassionately analyse what I see before me, to interpret this artefact. But then I see a small tuft of hair on the back of the neck, it catches me unawares, it is individual and personal. Yet I think of the mammoth which also had tufts of fur on the leg, similar little patches. I am fighting my emotions; what at the Natural History Museum was fascinating and intriguing suddenly at the British Museum becomes something completely different.
As you move round the exhibition you can control the scans, rotate the body and see what is hidden inside, it is amazing and allows me to move past my immediate emotional response. The layout and design are respectful and doesn’t feel intrusive, simply captivating. But by touching this wheel and using the technology, I become party to this invasion. I am lost in technology this time until the scan shows you the last meal of this natural mummy, in the mammoth it is scientific breakthrough, but here? I think about hunger, and preferences, food enjoyed and food shared with friends.
Every mummy is an emotional challenge but as they become more traditional in form, hidden behind painted masks I find it easier, it is the technology that excites my curiosity and leads me on, pulling me away from the human connections. You can see what is inside these sarcophagi without even opening them, the scans have been used to make a 3D printed skull, the abscess in the bone can clearly be seen and I think of human pain and the plastic melts into reality.
The CT scans can also be used to determine what amulets placed with the body are made of and 3D printing is again used to produce replicas. This is mind-blowing stuff, the sanctity of the burial is not disturbed and although the body sits in a glass case in a museum, I find it somewhat comforting that the final layers have not been broken and defiled. I think of Lubya, she had no such magical treasures and yet her story has reached us in the afterlife.
As I count off these lives I realise I am writing down numbers, even though the names are sometimes known, I think it is my way of detaching myself: The Temple door keeper, Padiamenet becomes the number 4; Tjayasetimu, the singer becomes simply number 5. Although the technology becomes sanctuary I am unprepared for the personality of the scans, they really bring to life what lies inside. I think of the magic spells that laces these bodies and helped them on their way. The sarcophagus of Tjayasetimu’s face, sanctified, painted, idealised and depersonalised it lies in a glass case below the screen showing the scan. The scan strips those layers away, I wonder if the magic amulets allow her to see herself on the screen, but her unblinking eyes are still and frozen in time, they give nothing away.
Number 7 I find very difficult, a young child around 2 years of age, my own youngest son is 3 years old. I see the large head resting forward on a small frail body, the items in the case are no help, small shoes, wooden toys. I do not linger. The technology is no distraction.
Finally I come to the last life, again challenging to look at, a nightmare of childhood dreams, so alien and yet just a skeleton, bones and skin. I discover she has a tattoo, something so familiar to our here and now that the years fall way and the body no longer becomes a dim and distant desiccated relic.
I think this exhibit is amazing and I will never look at mummies in the same way again. As I leave I see an image of the scientist grouped round a mummy, it immediately reminds me of a very similar picture at the Natural History Museum of Lubya. Scientists eager and excited to reveal nature’s secrets, that ultimately I have to remember come from just skin and bone but they have provoked in me such diverse reactions.
On the tube home I notice a student with a piece of paper, studying an anatomical drawing of a pair of hands, I take her for a medical student until she flips a page and I see a drawing by Henry Moore of a pair of hands, I am taken aback by my strong connection to the hands of the first mummy I saw at the British Museum. This drawing is so beautiful but I saw no beauty in the skeletal hands of the young man. You can see the image (The Artist’s hands) by clicking on the link below to the Henry Moore Foundation.
When I think of the Griset paintings I mentioned at the start of this blog, and Henry Moore’s picture of the hands, it is art trying to help us interpret the world around us. With these two exhibitions for the first time I have really felt that technology has replaced art in its attempt to add a whole other dimensions to what I see, it is not a distraction but just another tool for interpretation. What has really surprised me is that technology has not distanced me from the artefacts, from mammoth and mummies, sometimes a distraction but equally at times it has heightened and strengthened that human connection and my emotional reaction.
These two exhibitions have, for me, turned the corner in what technology can bring to a museum exhibition. I have been amazed, fascinated and challenged in equal measure, always the mark of a great exhibition. I urge you to see them both while you still can, even on the same day for your very own mashup museum experience.
With thanks to Giles Miller at the Natural History Museum
Mammoths: Ice Age Giants is on at the Natural History Museum till 7 Sept 2014 for tickets and opening times visit the website
Ancient lives, new discoveries is on at the British Museum and runs till 30 November 2014 for tickets and opening times visit the website
What I didn’t expect is how the CT scan gives personality to the faces of these mummies