Unwrapping the past

Rebecca Atkinson, 21.05.2014
Cutting edge technology opens up the BM's mummy collection
My sister just went to Paris for a week. “There were too many tourists,” she told me, without a flicker of irony.

She may have found the crowds at Sacré-Cœur galling, but figures published by the Office for National Statistics earlier this month show that London overtook the French capital as the city with the most foreign tourists in the world in 2013.

If you live or work in London, you learn pretty quickly to avoid the tourist hotspots. Unless, that is, you want to visit one of the capital’s national museums. That’s a different story. During some of my recent visits, it has felt like every one of London’s 16.8 million annual overseas visitors has decided to pop in at the same time as me.

The British Museum, which recently overtook the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as the second most visited museum in the world after the Louvre in Paris, no doubt receives its fair share of overseas visitors, all eager to see highlights such as the Parthenon marbles, the Rosetta stone and its large collection of Egyptian mummies.

The museum’s new exhibition Ancient Lives, New Discoveries, which opens tomorrow and runs until 30 November, could simply cash in on people’s interest in all things mummified. Instead, it thoughtfully and sensitively explores the lives of people along the river Nile thousands of years ago using eight mummies from its 120-strong collection and the latest visualisation technology.

This is done by displaying the mummies alongside passive and interactive CT scans; the British Museum has never unwrapped its mummies, so these scans literally open up the cartonnages to reveal the secrets of the past. Elsewhere, 3D scans have been used to recreate the jawbone of one body, amulets buried with a priestess and a tool left inside the skull of man.

As the exhibition shows, the use of this technology carries real benefits to our understanding of the ancient Egyptians. One interesting finding was that two of the mummies in the exhibition had plaque in their arteries, which can cause cardiovascular disease – one of the leading causes of death today.

Although Ancient Lives is small compared with other temporary exhibitions such as Vikings: Life and Legend, and is ticketed (£10 for adults), it sheds light on the realities of life in ancient Egypt and modern-day museum research – I hope it attracts the visitors it deserves.