Mummies have exerted a strange fascination over Westerners ever since the first tomb was rifled and its contents transported to Europe. At one point, the unwrapping of mummified bodies became fashionable events to which came fee-paying audiences of the rich. Lord Londesborough’s At Home card, for Monday, 10 June 1850, was a numbered invitation to attend at 144 Piccadilly. A mummy case in profile decorates the card which is thrillingly inscribed ‘A Mummy from Thebes to be unrolled at half-past Two’. The problem with such dramatic divestments was that nearly all the useful information to advance our knowledge of the Ancient Egyptians was lost or destroyed during the spectacle. Nowadays, such treatment is rightly considered vandalism, and technology has advanced sufficiently for us to be able to see beneath the mummy’s wrappings without actually removing them.
In what is apparently a ‘world first’, the British Museum has teamed up with computer specialists Silicon Graphics (SGI) and made use of medical scanning techniques to launch the first ever ‘virtual unwrapping’. For the sum of £6 (though family tickets cost only £15), you may purchase your timed ticket, queue with the multitudes under the string vest of the Great Court’s glass roof, and proceed into a cramped antechamber replete with warm-up videos richly voiced-over by Sir Ian McKellen, explaining the basic Egyptian context. Anyone suffering from even mild claustrophobia will not enjoy this preliminary. From there you are shepherded into a ‘specially designed immersive theatre’ (which is not the mind-bending flotation tank it sounds) with a 12-metre wraparound screen to go with the disposable 3D glasses you are instructed to wear. Then begins the main entertainment: a 20-minute Virtual Reality Experience of getting to know rather intimately Nesperennub, a priest from the temple of Khons in the Karnak religious complex, who lived in 800 bc.
Khons was a very ancient deity associated with the moon, and it seems that Nesperennub was from a family of priests, part of whose duties was to open the doors of the shrine.