Dead reckoning: 45 mummies arrive in Philadelphia

Six men in black suits, wearing sunglasses and earpieces, stood on the loading dock of the Franklin Institute looking like pallbearers. Which, in a sense, they were, as they unloaded cases containing mummies.

The largest museum exhibition of mummies just rolled into Philadelphia. On Tuesday the Franklin Institute took possession of 45 corpses, ranging from 250 years old to more than 6,500 years old.

They come from places around the world that–unlike a Philadelphia summer–are cool and dry.

“Crypts are wonderful,” said Heather Gill-Frerking, a mummy expert with the German Mummy Project. “Sometimes we have a cool breeze blowing through there, so it’s nice and cool and dry, so the mummies preserve. We have mummies from the Arctic and Greenland that are essentially freeze-dried in the cold, dry air.”

Mummies aren’t only from Egypt, and they do not always come wrapped. A family of Hungarians–the Orlovits–were mummified in their crypt in the 18th century due to the unique qualities of their burial place.

The exhibit includes “natural” mummies–meaning the dead were unintentionally buried in conditions that caused them to be preserved–and “artificial” mummies, such as the famous wrapped corpses from Egypt.

The exhibition, called “Mummies of the World,” will include a mummified howler monkey, which Gill-Frerking said was found stuffed with dried grass and fitted with a feathered headdress.

The traveling show was created by a company called American Exhibitions, which borrowed the 45 mummies from 20 European museums. During the three-year loans, the mummies will tour seven cities and be the subject of scientific research and medical scans.

“A lot of museums have mummies, but they don’t know the stories behind them because they’ve never done the research,” said American Exhibitions spokesman James Delay. “Some of the CT scanning has developed in the last 10-15 years to give us in-depth studies of mummies.”

The last time mummies came to Philadelphia was in April when the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology’s display of two Chinese mummies was abruptly cut short. The mummies at the Franklin Institute will be ready for viewing June 18.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.