Monday, June 6, 2016

Mummies by Candlelight: The Marvelous Dead and Darkness Tour with Dr. Koudounaris

The Mummies of the World exhibition is the largest collection of real mummies and artifacts assembled, providing a glimpse into the lives of ancient people from South America to Europe to Africa to the South Pacific and beyond. The exhibition has been experienced by over 1.4 million visitors across the world, and its limited engagement at the Bowers Museum is the first time the exhibit has been to Orange County! The exhibition teaches visitors about the world of mummies and mummification and shows how modern science helps us understand how and why mummies were created, where they came from, and who they were. 

Ok, as if that awesome description didn't get me hyped enough, I was even more excited to hear that a special nighttime lantern-lit tour of the exhibit would be led by none other than Dr. Paul Koudounaris, author of The Empire of Death,  Memento Mori, and Heavenly Bodies, who delighted so many (including me) at Death Salon in LA last year (read about that here). Tickets included a prix fix dinner at the museum's restaurant, Tangata, plus live entertainment by DJ Decadanse spinning gothic tunes and puppet shows by Rasputin's Marionettes. I was so in (and yes, I made sure Tangata had vegan options before buying tickets)! 

The Marvelous Dead and Darkness Tour was a really memorable event, and I'll walk you through my evening and share my photos below, which includes my overall thoughts on the organization of the event, a short review of the prix fix meal at Tangata (because of course!), as well as sharing photos of the mummies we saw by lantern-light!

Please note: below you will see photographs of real bodies, including some children and animals, so continue at your own discretion.

The evening's program

The night of the event Mister Spooky and I arrived a few minutes early, then stood in line about 10 or 15 minutes to get checked in and assigned a tour time before proceeding to the restaurant for dinner. This went pretty smoothly, but I would suggest if they do another event like this in the future they should stagger the times for dinner/tours instead of having everyone show up at 5:30. For example, when people buy tickets online, they should set it up so they can choose a time for dinner (like one dinner at 5:30, another at 7:30, and the last at 9:30) and each dining group would have a set tour time after dinner - so the 5:30 group would do a 7:00 tour, the 7:30 group would do a 9:00 tour, and the 9:30 people would do the last 11:00 tour. I think this would make the experience run a lot smoother and make guests happier. We were lucky to get there kinda early, but we still got stuck in the second tour group and had some time to kill between finishing dinner and our tour time. I feel bad for the people that got there a little later and got stuck in the late tour groups...some even had to wait several hours for their tour, and besides the music and bar in the courtyard, there wasn't much to do but sit around since no other collections were open to us. 

Prix fix menu at Tangata

Vegan options clockwise from top left - the salad, the stuffed portobello 
mushroom, mummies sign (not for eating, obvs), and strawberry dessert.

After we got checked in, we were seated for dinner in Tangata very quickly. The service was spotty at first, but got better as the night wore on. The dinner was prix fix, and while I had contacted the restaurant prior to purchasing tickets to confirm if vegan options were available (they even updated their menu to state "vegan menu will be available"), I still had some trouble communicating my needs. They were unable to provide a vegan amuse-bouche, which was okay, but it really shouldn't have been hard to prep something for vegans. Next, the vegan starter was "fleshed dragon-fruit salad on a bed of virgin arugula". Not too memorable and plated weird, but it was okay, and I liked the addition of goji berries and other dried fruit. The vegan entree was a "decapitated portobello mushroom stuffed with ancient grains on arugula drizzled with house-made pomegranate emulsion". This was really, really good and I enjoyed it a lot! I did freak out when it first came out since it appeared to be drizzled with cheese, but I was mistaken and reassured by the staff that it was just panko crumbs (whew!). They didn't have a vegan dessert, but after checking with the chef they were able to provide some fresh strawberries topped with refreshing mint and lychee. This was a yummy palate cleanser and ended dinner on a sweet note. I appreciate the restaurant accommodating vegans, and overall the vegan options at Tangata were satisfactory (though there is room for improvement!). 

Just gothing out in the courtyard waiting for our tour. 

After dinner we sat in the pretty museum courtyard and listened to DJ Decadanse spin some dark tunes until it was time for our tour group to marvel at the dead in the dark. I seriously got bats in my belly lining up for the tour, I was just so excited! Upon entering the completely dark exhibit, each visitor received a small flashlight to guide their journey through the world of the dead. Dr. Koudounaris guided us from mummy to mummy, artifact to artifact, all the time explaining if the mummy was created intentionally or unintentionally, the cultural customs of the particular specimen we were examining, the circumstances surrounding the death (natural, disease, or even human sacrifice), and so on. There were mummies of all sizes, of all ages, from different regions and periods in history. We also saw interesting artifacts, like clothing, jewelry, urns, as well as mummified animals. It was pretty amazing to check them all out in such an intimate, close environment lit only by beams from flashlights (which is why it was so tough to get good photos!). Check out some photos of the exhibit below (NOTE: these are real bodies, including mummified bodies of young children and animals, so if you are sensitive to that kind of thing, again, PLEASE continue at your own discretion):

This is the mummified body of a Baroness, who died during the 30 Years War
likely of malnutrition, as evidenced by the curvature of her spine.

A bog body, which may or may not have been a human sacrifice - cuts were 
found on the body, but whether they were caused pre- or post-mortem could 
not be determined.

 This female mummy from Peru was unintentionally mummified when she
died some 550 years ago between the ages of 18 - 21, and the cause 
of death is unknown. 

 The same Peruvian mummy from above seen from a different angle.
Her curled up fetal position and hands to her mouth are jarring.

This mummified cat accompanied a human mummy in his or her tomb 
to ensure the human had companionship in the afterlife. Other animal
mummies I saw were birds, fish, and even a small crocodile.

 The young child from Peru shown above was likely a human sacrifice - the Incas' 
child sacrifices involved a year-long process of feeding the children the finest foods 
and often drugging them up to a year or more in advance of their final sacrifice. 

 This child was naturally mummified in South America. Cause of death
is not known. And I missed the explanation on what the pointy things are.

These remains illustrate the head binding that South American cultures
practiced to create an elongated skull, which was a beauty ideal that was 
highly regarded. 

 Mummy sarcophagus from Egypt - did you know that as recently as 100 years
ago "mummy dust" was a highly sought-after therapeutic that people snorted?
It was such a big money-maker people would make mummies by burying bodies
 in the desert until they were desiccated, then grind up these mummified bodies
 to sell as "ancient, genuine, Egyptian" mummy dust. 

 An Egyptian mummy foot. Mummies were so popular in Victorian times that 
people would host mummy unwrapping parties. Yup, someone would bring 
back a mummy they dug up across the world, then Victorians would throw
a big bash to unravel the mummy and attendees would sometimes even take
body parts (like this foot) home as a party favor.

Shrunken heads - they were so small!

 I didn't get around to hearing/reading about these preserved heads, but they 
certainly look like they have tales to tell, don't they?

 This mummy's head, upper extremity and chest was prepared in order to study
the human anatomy - the carotid arteries and many other anatomical structures
are visible. The mummy above and a few below are part of the Burns Museum
Collection and are from the 19th century and were used as "teaching mummies"
in medical schools. 

 This is the same mummy from above seen from a different angle. 

 Another mummified specimen from the Burns Collection, which was important
for its time since studying human anatomy was so difficult due to the beliefs 
back then which led to laws preventing doctors and students from cutting open
bodies for science and education. The types of preserved bodies in the 
Burns Collection allowed countless students and doctors to study 
human anatomy and this understanding the human 
body led to countless advances in medicine.

 Another mummy from the Burns Collection, who seems to have lost half his head.
Also, finding mummies from the Burns Collection is extremely rare; this one
was found on eBay (where it was seized and returned to the proper 
care of a museum).

 This dapper gentleman is Michael Orlovits, a mummy from 19th century Hungary
who was naturally preserved along with his wife and son (shown below). 
His likely cause of death was tuberculosis.
 The clothes worn by all three mummies are reproductions of what they were 
wearing when they was laid to rest. 

 Johannes Orlovits, whose cause of death is unknown.

Veronica Orlovits, whose cause of death was likely tuberculosis, 
same as her husband.

So how absolutely amazing was that?! It was so surreal seeing this huge variety of mummies in one place, in pretty much pitch black, with the knowledgeable Dr. Koudounaris to guide us! As soon as I finished the tour I wanted to do it all over again. It was so unique and in all that darkness I felt a special kindred with the dead surrounding me. It was so fascinating hearing all their stories (I wrote the details above from memory, so apologies if something isn't accurate) and learning more about different cultures and different regions in the world that create mummies. 

 After the tour, we caught the last few minutes of Rasputin's Marionettes! It
was so cute, I wish I had seen the whole show!

I couldn't resist buying my own statuette of Egyptian goddess Bastet, 
protector of the home (among other things).

I know this sounds strange and a little morbid, but I get so excited to see dead bodies! I don't mean a gory body at the scene of an accident, and I mean excited as in intellectually stimulated by delving into the archaeology of ancients that lived hundreds and thousands of years before us. Their dead bodies can tell us so much about them, a glimpse of how they lived and perhaps clues to how they died. Viewing bodies and learning their history can ground us and remind us we all die eventually. So the opportunity to see the mummies by candlelight at The Marvelous Dead and Darkness Tour was such a memorable experience!

I love these kind of events, because we really aren't exposed to death that much in our sanitized U.S. culture. We tend to view death as something that happens behind closed doors and the subject isn't discussed in-depth. Most of us have no real connection with death, and most people fear it rather than embrace it as a part of life. Exhibits like the Mummies of the World can be so beneficial in getting us in touch with death, seeing it up close and personal, and coming to terms that some day, whether sooner or later, we will all die.  

If you are in the area or the exhibition comes somewhere near you, I highly recommend checking out Mummies of the World, it really is a memorable experience and will make you consider your own mortality. 

For more information, visit the Mummies of the World website and Bowers Museum website.


  1. Fabulous post!!!! I wish I could see this exhibit in person. Thank you for sharing it.

    1. I'm glad I could share it with you and I hope you get to see it in person one day! <3

  2. I'm pretty sure the "pointy things" in the photo of the South American child mummy are spindles for spinning yarn or thread. I saw the same exhibit in Philadelphia about 4-5 years ago and I'm pretty sure I remember spindles with pieces of thread/yarn still on them. I've been fascinated by mummies since childhood and I spin yarn myself, so I remember taking note of them!

    1. Thank you!! This actually makes a lot of sense as I remember the textiles and clothing the mummies died in being discussed.

  3. Interestingly enough, my party was sitting by the kitchen and I asked the expediter to make sure there was no cheese on my portabello. I heard the conversation between the chefs and the manager and they confirmed that there was Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs on the mushrooms, the manager seemed pissed because he had told the servers and me earlier that it was vegan, they refired one for me and apologized. I was also told earlier in the evening by a server that the head chef had left very recently and that there was a lot of confusion with the menu. I hope you got your food after they corrected the problem in the kitchen. The event was really fun and we spoke to the director of the show who brought it all together, she indicated that it would be the start of a trend to engage the more alternative and younger patrons.

    1. Oh blargh! I hope I didn't eat cheese by mistake...though they did take my first mushroom back to confirm it didn't have cheese on it. I didn't taste Parmesan, so I'm hoping I didn't get served any by mistake. I liked the event, but yes, I agree they need to figure out their menu more to avoid confusion and truly make it a vegan-friendly event.


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