Following controversy, mummies at Penn Museum remain objects of mystery





The Beauty of Xiaohe, a mummy from the torrid deserts of western China, had a long but uneventful trip to Philadelphia. For almost a year, she lay on view in museums in California and Texas, without controversy and without much more public notice than that which might be expected to greet an almost-4,000-year-old, perfectly preserved human being. But when she got to Philadelphia, something changed.

As she lay in a crate, surrounded by an astoundingly rich trove of cultural objects from the Tarim Basin, the Chinese government refused to give the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology permission to unload her and put her on view in its "Secrets of the Silk Road" exhibit. In early February, one of the most ambitious, expensive and time-intensive exhibitions the museum had ever planned looked in jeopardy.

It was a major blow for the Penn Museum and scholars such as University of Pennsylvania professor Victor Mair, who has for decades been studying these mummies and the astounding collection of textiles, funerary objects, domestic articles, jewelry and religious pieces found in a region that became crucial to the Silk Road. As the museum scrambled to mount the exhibition without the objects - producing models and photographs to take their place - Mair made an impassioned plea to the Chinese. Speaking the language flawlessly probably helped. In the end, the Chinese gave limited permission for the show to go forward....


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