Rare Chinese mummies make stop in Orange County

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Courtesy of the Bowers Museum

One of the Chinese mummies on display as part of "Secrets of the Silk Road: Mystery Mummies from China" exhibit at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.

A couple of rare Chinese mummies are away from Asia for the first time – they’ve made their way to the United States. KPCC's Susan Valot says they're part of a new exhibit that opens tomorrow at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.

During preparations for the "Secrets of the Silk Road: Mystery Mummies from China" exhibit, Paul Johnson grabs a ride on a lift to adjust some lights. For more than three decades he’s designed exhibits at the Bowers Museum.

Johnson says he enjoys telling a story by creating drama with "lighting, color, you know, tone. Both light and color is tone, right? I mean, so it's a musical note. So when people walk in, it's atmospheric."

Johnson says that atmosphere can excite people about history and encourage them to learn more about it. He starts by reviewing hundreds of pages of catalogs to figure out what items he can put in a display. Then Johnson chooses larger pieces to use as focal points.

In this exhibit, one dramatically-lit figure rests at the end of a long, wide corridor. It’s the white-and-gold mask and red-and-gold silk robe of a Silk Road merchant known as Yingpan Man.

"Right now, what we're seeing here is discovery. Where was Yingpan Man discovered? What was that day and age like? What was the transformation — what was the interaction between people? And for me, atmosphere and bringing you back in time is the most exciting part of the show, dealing with the design part of it.

"Each space will open itself up to you in a different way. And by the time you're at the tail end, you're going to see Beauty of Xiaohe. And she is the most amazing — amazingly preserved and beautiful mummy that I've ever seen," Johnson says.

But building the display to hold that mummy — and the others — has been a challenge.

Johnson says measurements and descriptions got lost in translation in China, so opening crates meant "unpacking one surprise after another." He points to a couple of wooden planks — a coffin — in a sandy trench near the Beauty of Xiaohe.

"That coffin — it looks like a boat upside down? — was supposed to be found with the Beauty of Xiaohe and we were going to have it underneath her. So she was going to be floating above the coffin. But what happened was the coffin was twice as high as we had indication on our list. So I've had to take the coffin out, opened up another opening in the floor and we're going to use this as a backlit transparency of the actual coffin and we're going to put her on this because it was already included in the audio tour."

So the Beauty of Xiaohe mummy will hover on plexi-glass over an image of her coffin, with the real thing a few feet away. Bowers Museum President Peter Keller says the Beauty of Xiaohe lived in the northwestern China desert 3,800 years ago.

"And she's beautifully preserved with long eyelashes and flowing red hair — beautiful lady. My secretary says she wished she had her hair. A gorgeous woman. And she's 1800 BC. That's 1,600 years earlier than the Silk Road. And so there were a lot of people — in this case, European-like people — out in this region LONG before the traders arrived on the Silk Road" Keller says.

Keller says her story — and that of a nearby mummified baby, complete with stones covering its eyes and red wool stuffed in its nose — offer glimpses at a time and place researchers are just learning about.

"Who was there? And that's the secret. That's the mystery. We don't know who these people are. We don't know where they came from and what they were doing there."

Archaeologists are still excavating the area today. You can explore "Secrets of the Silk Road" at the Bowers Museum through July 25.


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