Mummies Provoke Controversy at UPenn Museum

In our January-February edition of Traveler 20– a round-up of travel-worthy happenings taking place around the globe– we profiled the upcoming mummy exhibit “The Secrets of the Silk Road,” set to run from February 5th through June 5th at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology. Yesterday, the Washington Post reported a sad turn of events: The mummies, including the “Beauty of Xiaohe,” will not stay on display for the full run of the show.

The mummies, from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of western China, were intended to be on display through June, but the Chinese government has decided to limit the permission they originally granted to the Penn Museum, taking them back to China on March 15th. After that date, the show will go on through the end of March, but in modified form, focusing on 100 related artifacts. From the end of March until the exhibit’s June close, photos and models will replace the actual mummies and artifacts, and the museum won’t charge admission.

The Chinese government attributes early revocation to the mummies

fragile condition and the fact that they and other artifacts should not be outside of China for more than a year, which they would be if they stayed at Penn for the show’s duration. In China’s change of heart, some speculate cultural sensitivities– the mummies were excavated in the primarily Muslim Uyghur region– could have been a contributing a factor in the early return.

The announcement is a huge disappointment due the uniqueness of these artifacts. The mummies, excavated in the arid Tarim Basin, are remarkably well preserved. Visitors will be surprised by their mysterious non-Chinese appearance, hinting at a more complex history of ethnic communication across the Silk Road than has been previously understood. In the exhibit’s catalog, anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Spencer Wells

comments that the mummies make it seem “as though Celts or Vikings had been mysteriously transported into the middle of the Chinese desert.”

The star of the exhibit, the Beauty of Xiaohe, for example, beguiles with her lush eyelashes and auburn hair.

You can still see the mummies if you get your act together before March 15th. The museum and the city of Philadelphia offer travelers some great combo exhibit-hotel packages.

Check them out here. Can’t make it to Philly? The Penn Museum has a robust website dedicated to the exhibit including a collection of video lectures.

Photo: “The Beauty of Xiaohe,” female mummy, ca 1800-1500 BC. Excavated from Xiaohe (Little River) Cemetery 5, Charqilik (Ruoqiang) County, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, China. © Wang Da-Gang