Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Mysterious Mummies of Xinjiang

February 5th, 2011 was supposed to be a special day for the Penn Museum as it opened the final leg of a 3-city tour of Xinjiang’s “Secret of the Silk Road” exhibit. Camels circled the building and dancers took to the stage. The only thing missing at the museum that day were all the Silk Road artifacts – including the mummies.
The planning of the “Secrets of the Silk Road” tour, which has already stoped at the Bowers Museum in California and the Houston Museum of Natural Science, was a project that for some was over 10 years in the planning. Although both of these museum exhibits ran for their duration without problems, something has happened that caused Chinese officials to cancel any further displays.

Why China Canceled the Xinjiang Exhibit

The Beauty of Xiaohe, a Xinjiang Mummy 
Naturally the first question that has popped into everybody’s mind is “Why stop the exhibit?” News reporters and bloggers have risen to the challenge of explaining this odd Chinese behavior and the reasons are as numerous as the people who think them up. Here are my favorites:
  1. The Mummies are…Caucasian! <gasp>: Out of London, The Independent reports that after a year of touring the US, the Chinese officials finally woke up and realized that the mummies have Caucasian features that might accidentally lead people to believe Xinjiang hasn’t always been part of China. Never mind that the Xinjiang Museum in Urumqi has a life-size reconstruction of the Beauty of Loulan that is obviously not Chinese…they just came to this conclusion last week.
  2. It’s Against the Law: Based on comments made by the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C., NPR reports that Chinese law allows for archaeological exhibits to tour overseas for no longer than 8 months. “We cannot go contrary to the law” says the embassy secretary. Umm…I think he’s been away from home so long he’s forgotten that Chinese laws are merely guidelines. That, or he has no clue what’s going on. Both are very likely.
  3. The Possibility of Protests: No, we’re not talking about the Urumqi riots here. I’m actually referring to a 1997 riot in the lesser-known town of Gulja that was also very deadly. Uyghur groups announced plans to stage demonstrations on February 5th, to commemorate the 14th anniversary of the riots. China hates anniversaries – this is an undeniable fact – but do they hate them this much?
The Penn Museum, ex-home to the Secrets of the Silk Road Exhibit 
If I had to place a bet, I wouldn’t waste my money on any of these theories. The fact is that the mummies are still on US soil and hopes are still high that a negotiation can be reached to still display the mummies at the Penn Museum.
Why would China cause such problems here? Just because they can. President Hu has left the country after being pressured to say that China has a lot to learn in the area of human rights and the politics surrounding this exhibit are sensitive already. Any “i” left undotted had the potential to halt this Silk Road tour and I doubt anybody is going to fess up to the mistake.

What Does This Mean?

In this debacle, nobody is winning.  So far, this is what is happening:
  • A paper mache mummy replacing the real Xinjiang mummy 
  • A “dummy mummy” made of paper-mache is being displayed in place of the “Beauty of Xiaohe” and the infant mummy. (The Inquirer – Philly)
  • The Penn Museum is offering a refund to anybody who had already purchased tickets. A scaled down exhibit is still being displayed, but it’s free.
  • If issues aren’t resolved and the exhibit never happens, both the Bowers Museum and the Houston Museum will have to fork over an extra $27,500 to cover the exhibit’s travel costs no longer shared by the Penn Museum. (LATimes)
If you happen to be near the Penn Museum, I hope you’ll show your support and still stop by for a visit. Like I said, it’s possible that the exhibit will still happen, so keep an eye on their website or their Twitter feed.
As for the questions surrounding the mystery of this sudden Chinese change of heart…don’t hold your breath for an answer any time soon.