Originally published 1 July 2014, at the Research Forum Blog of the Courtauld Institute, London.
This new exhibition gives visitors an insight into the latest scientific research methods in the field of physical and cultural anthropology. But at the same time, the exhibition is also of interest for art historians since it changes our understanding of the human body.
Ever since we have been capable of drawing and painting, we have visually recreated our own faces, body postures and body movements; and the emergence of new media, such as photography and technical animation has simply expanded our physical possibilities. Hence, the current high-tech exhibition at the British Museum juxtaposes the standard representation of the human body as it raises awareness to the decaying process of a human body instead of highlighting its genesis and the artistic recreation process of human faces and bodies – what art historians usually do. It is outstanding as it draws a compelling link between technology and mortality, and conveys the idea that a mummy is little but the residue of a human being preserved over several centuries.
While anthropologists have long studied the conditions of mummies’ teeth to determine the age at which the person died as well as to shed light on their diet and social class, this exhibition is unique that it provides more information about the general physical the condition of the human bodies. Anthropologists and art historians have more in common than you might think: both study the object itself before drawing on its visual representation to explain the reasoning of their thesis to others. For example, the penetration of the mummies with invisible light in CT has resulted in several x-ray images, in which invisible light appears white since the heavy materials of the bones have absorbed it. They are joined together to a cohesive image on a computer screen, and are used to create short 3-D animations to make the decaying process of the skeletons more easily accessible for non-experts.
Studying the physical anthropology of mummies may give us some time to rethink how we use and fuel our own mental and physical machine. Hence, the exhibition’s memento mori effect demonstrates that the Deleuzian “body without organs” is only a skeleton, coated with muscles to uphold our upright standing position, covered with a layer of vulnerable flesh. Without keeping our organic engine running our body is not very different to the skeleton of a mummy since our “coating” depends on it. The same observation, but the other way around, can be made when studying the artistic renditions of bodies. At first artists need to study the anatomy of a human body, and at the same time understand the possibilities and limitations of the media they are using to visualise it, just as in science. In light of this, the British Museum exhibition is highly significant for anthropologists and art historians as it promotes the closure of the gap between social science and the field of art history by strengthen cross-disciplinary approaches.
Ancient lives, New discoveries is at the British Museum til the 30th November 2014.