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With China Treasures Under Wraps, Pa. Museum Takes 'Dummy Mummy' Route

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With China Treasures Under Wraps, Pa. Museum Takes 'Dummy Mummy' Route


With China Treasures Under Wraps, Pa. Museum Takes 'Dummy Mummy' Route

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Some of China's most treasured antiquities, the mummies of Xinjiang Province, have been museum hopping in the U.S. for nearly a year now. It took decades of negotiations to get them here and they've been seen by tens of thousands of visitors in Santa Ana, California and Houston, Texas.

But a much anticipated final stop at the University of Pennsylvania's Archeology Museum in Philadelphia has ran into an unexpected roadblock from the Chinese government.

NPR's Zoe Chace has the story.

ZOE CHACE: Nothing initially seemed off when we walked into the museum on opening day.

(Soundbite of a crowd)

Dr. RICHARD HODGES (Director, Penn Museum): Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Good morning, I'm Richard Hodges.

CHACE: But it didn't take long for things to get a bit awkward for the museum's director.

Dr. HODGES: This exhibition has really got three stories to it today and I'm going to talk about two and not the third.

CHACE: The third story, of course, is the fact that this is a museum exhibition about ancient artifacts from China's Silk Road that's lacking any artifacts from China's Silk Road.

When you walk into the show the first thing you see is a long glass case. When you peer into it you realize...

Ms. KATE QUINN (Head of Exhibits/Lead Exhibit Designer, Penn Museum): That is not a mummy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. QUINN: That is a picture of a mummy, but you can still learn something from it. But it's a Dada wonderland in here now.

CHACE: Kate Quinn is in charge of the show's design. Her staff found out only about two weeks ago they wouldn't be allowed to display the actual artifacts. So they decided to go with pictures from the exhibition's catalog, and from Flickr accounts of visitors who took photographs at the California and Houston showings.

So, yes, these are glass cases set up exactly as you'd set up a display of ancient artifacts, with life-sized cardboard cutouts inside.

Ms. QUINN: So we tried to make lemonade out of lemons here. But we still have a responsibility to teach the public.

CHACE: While the mummies are still in Houston, the artifacts that go with them are here in Philadelphia in giant wooden crates - unopened.

Ms. MARY SCHUMACHER(ph): After the first two, like cardboard cutouts, it became obvious that it's all cardboard cutouts and we just started to get the giggles.

CHACE: Mary Schumacher and Steve Boleno(ph) were among hundreds who turned out on opening day.

Mr. STEVE BOLENO: I don't think that, really, people want to see a picture of old pants.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHACE: Opening day visitors - 569 to be exact - seem to appreciate the brave face that the museum put on this weekend, like Jennifer Chu(ph).

Ms. JENNIFER CHU: Under the circumstances, they did pretty great. It's just not a position I envy.

CHACE: Chu and others wandered quietly from case to case, just as you'd expect at any museum.

Peter Keller says it's unfortunate they don't get to see the real things. He's the director of the Bowers Museum in California, who did the original deal with China to get the antiquities and showed the mummies first. He's proud of what Penn has done.

Dr. PETER KELLER (President, Bowers Museum): What they have done is just extraordinary in terms of the amount of educational content, the design, the exhibit techniques.

CHACE: So what happened? I reached Tidin Zhang(ph), first secretary of the Cultural Office at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. He refused to let our interview be recorded. But he said, and I'm quoting, "According to the law for protection of archeological exhibits, a maximum amount of time to have a tour overseas is eight months. The law is the law and we cannot go contrary to the law."

Zhang contends the Penn Museum made a mistake when it reached its own agreement with China and didn't check the timeline.

Penn Museum Director Richard Hodges says the negotiations with the Chinese government are ongoing, but refuses to comment on their substance. He maintains it's just a simple miscommunication.

Dr. HODGES: It's a bit like the difference between English English - which, of course, is Shakespearean English. And American English which, of course is just a dialectal version. And sometimes, between the two, you know, you guys get it wrong.

CHACE: In fact, Hodges seems to think the misunderstanding has been cleared up and Penn will still get a chance to display the antiquities.

Dr. HODGES: I think there's every likelihood it will come about, every likelihood.

CHACE: Maybe the best explanation comes from Lothar von Falkenhausen, a renowned specialist in Chinese archeology.

Professor LOTHAR VON FALKENHAUSEN (Department of Art History, University of California, Los Angeles): This is the kind of thing that happens when people who care to do something that seems meaningful hurt themselves against people who care about the administration.

CHACE: Bureaucracy is not exclusively Chinese, he says, nor is not dotting every I and crossing every T exclusively American - not that we know for sure that that's what really happened.

Zoe Chace, NPR News.

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