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Mystery mummies -- another big show at the Bowers

March 27, 2010 |  8:00 am

Baby

The Bowers Museum in Santa Ana has been scoring one blockbuster show from China after another.  Two years ago its “Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor” boasted the largest foreign loan of the famous life-sized statues from Xian.  The efforts paid off -- the exhibition attracted 300,000 visitors, with admission prices topping at $27. The Bowers now hopes to approach that record with an exhibition opening this weekend, “Secrets of the Silk Road: Mystery Mummies of China” (through July 25), which features 150 artifacts from burials found around the vast Taklamakan Desert in northern China.

The stars of the exhibition are two remarkably preserved mummies (one from the 18th century BC, the other from the 8th century BC) and the elaborate trappings of Yingpan man (3rd-4th century).  For nearly two decades, major American museums – including the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County – have tried to borrow these celebrated artifacts found in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.  However, the central government put a ban on their export because of political sensitivities.

On one hand it seemed awkward for Beijing that the early inhabitants of this disputed region appeared to be non-Han. The 200-some mummies found there have been identified as Caucasoid, with long noses and light hair. Meanwhile, the local Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority, did not like the idea of sending their ancestors on exhibition. However, says Dr. Victor Mair, a University of Pennsylvania professor and consultant to the Bowers exhibition, these Caucasoid peoples predate both Uyghur and Han Chinese presence .Bowers president Peter Keller and board member Anne Shih had long known about the mummies. "I just thought we absolutely had to have them for a really great exhibition of this kind," says Keller.

Eight years ago Shih took a trip to Xinjiang to see the mummies; she was told there was no way they could be loaned abroad.  At the end of 2008 she attended the opening of a Silk Road exhibition at the National Museum of History in Taipei.  Museum officials from Xinjiang told her that perhaps things were loosening. Three months later, Keller and Shih went to Xinjiang to select items from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum and the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology. They drafted an agreement and sent their request to Beijing. In June the request was approved. “I was so happy,” says Shih. “I’d been working on this for 10 years, but I never gave up.”

For more images and to read my Arts & Books article, click here.

-- Scarlet Cheng

Related: 

Chinese mummies bring surprises to surface

Photo: A 2,800-year-old infant mummy, Baby Bluebonnet.

Credit: Jae C. Hong / Associated Press

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