The Mummy That Wasn’t There

What happens when a museum is forbidden to exhibit the star of its show?

One chilly March morning in 2011, I ran into Ben Neiditz outside a wig shop in West Philadelphia. He stood there, new wig in hand, looking for a good patch of dirt.

Ben is an artist. Over our 15 years of friendship I’ve been witness to many strange projects. Once, while exploring an abandoned building, we stumbled across a pile of dead bees, which Ben scooped up and turned into a sculpture. Later he kept a studio in my basement where he built corpselike models. So I wasn’t shocked to see him with a wig, but the story behind it did surprise me.

Ben had been working at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology for two years when I ran into him that day, mostly building casework and interactive exhibits for the museum. That March, two weeks before the opening of the museum’s blockbuster show, Secrets of the Silk Road, Ben got what he calls “the big news.”

Mummies Up Close: Inside the Penn Museum's Artifact Lab

Go behind the scenes of the Penn Museum’s Artifact Lab.

The Chinese government had forbidden the museum to display the stars of the show, two mummies from the Tarim Basin in western China. Unlike most Egyptian mummies, these desiccated corpses had been unintentionally mummified. They were incredibly well preserved because of the environmental conditions of the region: very dry and sandy with high soil salinity. Bodies such as these, buried during the winter when conditions were driest and saltiest, are the best preserved.

One of the mummies was a young woman who died between 1800 and 1500 BCE. The Beauty of Xiaohe, as she is called, had retained her hair, eyelashes, and distinctive bone structure (she had very nice cheekbones) for thousands of years. The second mummy was a tightly swaddled infant buried around the 8th century BCE. But both were stuck in Houston, the previous stop in the traveling exhibition.

To this day no one knows the real reason behind China’s decision, but there has been plenty of speculation. The mummies’ Caucasian features might have presented a geopolitical quagmire for the Chinese government. The Tarim Basin lies in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, a site with a history of political contention over which people were there first and to whom it now belongs. The official Chinese account states that ethnic Han Chinese were the first to arrive in the 2nd century BCE. The Tarim mummies, however, provide evidence that Eurasian peoples with genetic similarities to the Uyghurs, the region’s ethnic minority, were there much earlier.

Some observers wondered if China was simply worried that the mummies had been on the road for too long or even that there had been a serious miscommunication in which the museum had wrongly assumed it had permission to borrow the mummies at all.

The fiasco proved to be an opportunity for Ben, who is somewhat of an expert in replica cadaver fabrication. Ben quickly convinced his boss that he could create facsimiles of the Chinese mummies and leapt to work, scouring the Internet for photographs of the mummies and for the materials he’d need: raw felt, fabric dye, feathers and fur, fake fingernails and eyelashes, and, of course, a wig. Those basement cadavers that had creeped me out suddenly seemed so useful.

By the time the exhibition opened, China had delivered even stricter instructions: the Penn Museum couldn’t exhibit any of the artifacts. While Ben was perfecting his dummy mummies, everyone else was frantically scanning the exhibition catalog and printing life-sized color copies of artifacts, like a 3rd-century wooden coffin and delicately embroidered boots from around the same period. These printouts were glued to foam boards and propped up in cases intended for the objects themselves. A potential nightmare for the museum but not so bad for Ben. His mummies—the only three-dimensional objects in the gallery—were now the stars of the show. They were also extremely lifelike—or, rather, mummylike.

As Ben puts it, “Everything that was fake was real, and everything that should have been real was very obviously fake.”

At the exhibition opening I saw crowds clustered around the two mummies, and I understood Ben’s need for that dirt patch: though the Beauty of Xiaohe still had her hair, it was thousands of years old and had spent a long time underground, so a shiny new wig wouldn’t have cut it.

A few weeks later China finally relented, and the real mummies and objects went on display. I saw for myself the striking resemblance between Ben’s mummies and the Chinese ones.