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From the vaults: Field Musuem bringing out the mummies

'Opening Vaults: Mummies' exhibitiThe Field Museum. 4 year old Teegan Friar his mother Kristie Friar from Chicago views Oldest Teenager

"Opening the Vaults: Mummies" exhibition at The Field Museum. 4 year old Teegan Friar and his mother, Kristie Friar from Chicago views Oldest Teenager mummy, Monday, February 13, 2012. | John H. White~Chicago Sun-Times.

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Updated: March 17, 2012 10:21AM

Of the 24 million items in the Field Museum’s collection, less than 1 percent are on public display at any given time.

Starting Friday, some of the museum’s most storied and fragile treasures, many not seen since the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, will be featured in a new exhibit, “Opening the Vaults: Mummies,” which runs for only two months.

More than 20 mummified remains from ancient Egypt, Peru, Chile and Ecuador are shown alongside dramatic video of what Field researchers, using a CT scanner last summer, found lying within the various coffins, linen wraps and mummy bundles. Using the latest imaging technology, the exhibit reveals elements of death from life 5,500 to 800 years ago.

Field researchers first used X-ray technology in the 1930s to study the mummies, one of the first museums to do so. The X-rays answered some limited questions about what the coffins contained without unwrapping them, said J.P. Brown, museum conservator.

Museum staff also previously used hospital scanners for smaller objects, but that too had limits.

“A problem was making sense of the data,” Brown said. “What’s fun now is that it’s well within the realm of possibility to take thousands of slices [of images from CT scans] and render them in 3-D. The CT scanning has just been unbelievably cool. It’s just astonishing.”

Jaap Hoogstraten, the Field’s director of exhibitions, said he instantly knew when listening to a staff report on the CT scans that the mummies and the new revelations about them should be on public display.

The exhibit wasn’t a cost-cutting move to use in-house materials, he said.

“This wasn’t about saving money but about opportunity,” Hoogstraten said, adding that it wasn’t cheap to take the mummies out of storage. “It’s such a compelling story.”

Using reverse engineering, the museum created three-dimensional skulls of two of the mummies on display. One is of a 14-year-old boy with a shaved head. The other is a 40-year-old woman with curly hair.

“It’s just so nice to be able to hold in your hand a physical copy of the skull while the mummy remains intact,” said Robert Martin, curator of biological anthropology.

Two identical skull replicas were sent to Paris, where a famed forensic reconstruction artist will reconstruct the mummies’ faces, ears and hair from the CT scans. Those will be on display when portions of the exhibit move permanently to a smaller space in the museum’s Brooker Gallery. For those who want to see the actual mummies, now may be their only opportunity.

“Most of this stuff is too fragile” to display for long, Brown said. “We’re not touring it. It’s too difficult.”

“Mummies” is the first in what is expected to be a series of “Opening the Vault” exhibits at the museum. While the next topic hasn’t been selected, Hoogstraten said it would include items from museum storage that Field researchers are continuing to study.

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