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The Accidental Ambassadors

A traveling exhibit of Mexican mummies offers a rare glimpse of 19th-century life in Guanajuato and, in death, teaches us much about life.

For the first time this fall, a unique set of mummies from Guanajuato, Mexico, will visit the United States. Organized by the Detroit Science Center, the Accidental Mummies of Guanajuato, on loan from the Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato, will begin its tour in Detroit and visit at least six U.S. cities over the next three years, offering the public a rare window into 19th-century life in this colonial city, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

"This may be the most important exhibit on Mexican culture in the last 30 years,"says Martina Guzman, the exhibit's content developer.

The touring display of 36 mummies, which kicks off in October, was shaped by top mummy experts, medical personnel, and the city of Guanajuato, compiling information from anthropologists, mummy x-rays, and local lore. Through the work of a forensic artist, visitors will be able to see the mummies as they may have looked when alive, and audio tours recorded by actors in character will reenact the mummies stories. In keeping with Mexican culture, the emphasis is on life, not death: "Death is not morbid for Mexicans,"says Guzman.

The Detroit Science Center also reconstructed the mummies crypts and filmed a documentary on their history. For scientists Gerald Conlogue and Ronald Beckett, the exhibit is a winning combination of history, science, and culture.

"These mummies are actual individuals from the past," says Conlogue. "They are not written records transcribed by someone who may have been biased about what they experienced. The bodies of these mummies can accurately tell us about the period they lived in, what their life was like, and the diseases they may have had."

The two professors, from Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, were the first experts to analyze the natural mummification in Guanajuato's Santa Paula Pantheon cemetery, in 2001. More than 100 perfectly preserved corpses, who spanned a century, have been found in the crypts, none of which show any evidence of intentional embalming. Instead, Beckett and Conlogue theorize that the cement crypts, humidity levels, and altitude in Guanajuato provided the ideal conditions for this accidental mummification sometimes in less than two weeks.

The scientists, with the help of Oakwood Healthcare System in Detroit, used noninvasive medical technology to learn more about the mummies. In addition to the cultural aspect, the mummies have yielded important medical information. "Some of the diseases present in the past, such as tuberculosis, are still present today. However, they may have changed," says Conlogue. "Without these mummified individuals, it would not be possible to actually see the effects of the old forms of the disease. In addition, disease patterns from the past that were not clearly understood may be accurately identified today."

The stories of Guanajuato's mummified residents date back to the 1850s, when the city's booming silver mining industry attracted people of all nationalities and social classes. Each mummy in the exhibit, which includes 31 adults and five children, tells a unique story.

"There's a real sense of community here," says Beckett, who was moved by the support apparently provided by the residents of Guanajuato for their sick companions. He tells the story of "La Bruja" (the witch), a mummy so nicknamed because of her long hair, hunched back, and walking disability, which identify her as a less fortunate resident of the city. Members of the community, though, dressed her meticulously for her burial. Despite her nickname, "La Bruja" and her story exemplify the affectionate traditions of 19th-century Guanajuato, says Beckett.

But it's Mexico's rich culture that will really come through in the exhibit, says Guzman. Visitors will see Guanajuato as an important city on an international scale, she says.

The exhibit reeled in extra support from several Mexican museums. Images of La Catrina, the Day of the Dead's emblematic skull caricature, will be provided from artist Jos Guadalupe Posada's museum in Aguascalientes. Information from the Museo Alhndiga de Granaditas, a regional museum housed in a historic granary in Guanajuato, will be available, including original images depicting the diversity of 19th-century Mexican families on loan from its Romualdo Garca archive. And the Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato, of course, has also played a pivotal role in the exhibit's formation.

The mummies-- visit comes just in time for the Mexican revolution's bicentennial in 2010. "These mummies can be seen as ambassadors," says Beckett. "Americans will experience the similarities to our country during that same time period. Those who see the exhibit will leave with a greater understanding of the people and times of early Guanajuato, told to them by the mummies themselves."

Collectively, the mummies document more than a century of history, serving as a historic and cultural link to their vibrant past. In true Mexican spirit, the dead will cultivate a celebration of life.

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