Mummies, they’re just like us. Kind of.
The Royal Ontario Museum’s newest exhibit in Toronto is attempting to show visitors how six “average” mummies are a lot like their modern counterparts — aside from the thousands of years of being entombed following a fascinating burial rite.
And it’s attempting to do so amid a pandemic.
When it opens to the public on Saturday, it will be the first time the ROM has held an exhibition on ancient Egypt in more than a decade. The mummies, three females and three males, are on loan from the British Museum in London.
Each time an exhibition is hosted, senior curator Krzysztof Grzymski said the museum tries to focus on a different theme.
“This time it’s about both daily life in ancient Egypt, but it’s also about the use of modern techniques to study, in a non-destructive way, ancient objects or ancient individuals,” he said.
While just the thought of ancient Egypt will conjure thoughts of nobility and even the supernatural, the mummies on display are much more average. All were upper- to lower-middle-class individuals and include temple singers, a priest, a child and a woman at the head of a prominent household.
Grzymski said although they weren’t nobility, they still had to have enough money to cover the expensive process of their burial.
“The really poor people would have just been wrapped in linen,” he said, “and buried in ordinary tombs.”
Interpretive planner Laura Robb was among the many organizing the exhibit from a distance. She said the ROM wants visitors to look for the connections between ancient Egypt and today.
“Yes, there’s thousands of years that separate us, but there’s a lot of recurring themes and rhythms that we see in any society,” she said.
One section follows diet and daily living by displaying elements as they related to a priest. One of the artifacts there is a model of a brewery. While the figures are mashing barley and sifting flour with ancient techniques, Robb said the exhibition staff found it very appealing.
“It just kind of relates to our own craft brewing scene that we see across the country, but really in Ontario and southern Ontario right now,” said Robb.
Robb said the ROM also wants visitors to look for the connections between ancient Egypt and today.
“Yes, there’s thousands of years that separate us, but there’s a lot of recurring themes and rhythms that we see in any society.”
It’s relevant in the musical objects and jewelry, she said, but also in the health issues the mummies suffered from. Modern technology, such as digital imaging, is used to help display the very relatable health ailments.
A video sequence next to one mummy, for example, dives below its ancient wrappings to subdermal levels and reveals artificial eyes, which as they appear glowing on the screen, adds an eerie mystique to the setting.
“This is a show about a very human approach to living in Egypt,” she said.
Grzymski pointed out one of the mummies, a female temple singer, with preserved soft tissues and arteries showing that she suffered from heart disease.
“In this case, we don’t find an example of someone being the victim of an epidemic like we are in right now,” said Grzymski.
Others, he said, had serious dental problems due to a combination of overindulging in sweet foods and their sandy environment.
“It’s information that’s certainly evidence of relevance today,” said Grzymski.
When the exhibit opens, it will be the result of a complicated process of pulling off an event that was originally destined to begin in May. When the pandemic hit, the mummies were at a museum in Montreal. Usually, Grzymski said curators from the British Museum would prepare it for the voyage to Toronto. Pandemic lockdowns prevented that from happening.
“Nobody could come from London, so it was our ROM staff which removed the objects from Montreal, transported them to Toronto,” he said.
Like other events requiring physical-distancing standards, the ROM is no different. Markers on the ground remind people to keep space between each other with the aid of hieroglyphics. The setting itself has also proven to be a blessing in disguise. The special exhibition room is quite large, which created some concerns over how it would affect the display which was designed for a smaller area.
“At the time of COVID, it allowed our designers to spread out the cases to keep safe distance,” said Grzymski. “So in this sense, something turned out to our advantage.”
Robb said the video displays have also been arranged to prevent touching and the rooms are organized in a non-linear way.
“You can kind of ping-pong through that section and understand the different artifacts without having to be set through a specific order,” she said.
While the event is opening during a time of uncertainty and limited capacity, Grzymski said he’s not terribly concerned. Originally the travelling exhibit was supposed to stay for three months, which has now been doubled to next March. The extension, he noted, will help more people visit amid reduced capacity limitations.
“You cannot travel to Egypt now,” said Grzymski, “so at least you can, you know, get to Egypt through this exhibition.”