How do you move a mummy to The Leonardo? It isn't easy

The Leonardo • Custom-built, temperature-stable crates are just one of the elements required to stage the "Mummies of the World" exhibit.
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Visitors to "Mummies of the World: The Exhibition at The Leonardo" will see absolutely fascinating artifacts — preserved humans and animals that range from 300 to 6,500 years.

What visitors won't see is how they got to Salt Lake City, a parallel story that's almost as intriguing as the exhibits themselves.

You can't just put a mummy in a cardboard box, dump in Styrofoam peanuts, tape it up and send it off. The mummies and the accompanying artifacts arrived in specially built crates that were designed to minimize damage along the way.

Each of the 29 custom-built crates is outfitted with its own sensor to detect variations in temperature and humidity. The mummies are wrapped in special materials, placed in custom-fit foam and situated so they don't shift — can't shift — during transport. "They are, frankly, works of art," said Heather Gill-Frerking, director of science and education for the exhibition. "It's just genius."

The human mummies each get their own crates, but the animal mummies have to share.

"It's really critical that we take into account each individual mummy's needs," Gill-Frerking said. "So if a mummy has an arch to its back or its neck, we have to make sure to pad underneath so they're sitting perfectly solid and aren't going to shift at all."

After all, just because something has been mummified for a couple of thousand years doesn't mean it will stay that way. "The minute you take it out of whatever conditions led it to be preserved, you're doomed," she said. "You're introducing oxygen, perhaps. You're introducing moisture. And you have to have oxygen and moisture for decomposition. So they are at very great risk of deterioration."

It's not just the mummies that get tender, loving care. That attention is also extended to the 150 or so artifacts that travel with them.

"The Egyptian that's got the sarcophagus with it, that is a bit of a monster to travel with," said Gill-Frerking, no pun intended. "The mummy and the sarcophagus have different needs, so you have to pack those pieces very carefully."

The mummies arrived in town on Feb. 4, and workers have been on a tight schedule to prepare for the Saturday opening. It takes about 14 days — or about a dozen workers about 1,800 hours — to retrofit a museum space with display cases, multimedia exhibits and lighting for the exhibition, said Marc Corwin, president of American Exhibitions. It takes another 900 hours to dismantle the exhibit.

"The behind-the-scenes stuff is pretty cool," Gill-Frerking said. "And the care that we take with them is really important. I mean, these are people. And we have to treat them appropriately."

After all, this isn't your father's mummy exhibit. Yes, there are mummies from Egypt, but "Mummies of the World" also includes mummies and artifacts from South America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Some of the bodies were mummified intentionally; other were mummified accidentally. And while some of the exhibits are thousands of years old, some are just a few hundred years old — including an 18th-century Hungarian family accidentally mummified when they (along with hundreds of others) were buried beneath the floor of a church and forgotten for centuries. There's also a 17th-century German baron recovered from the crypt at his castle.

"I'm hoping that by the time visitors leave, they'll be able to say, 'Wow, mummies come from more than just Egypt,' " Gill-Frerking said.

The "Mummies of the World" exhibition began in 1994 when 20 mummies thought lost during World War II were discovered in the basement of a museum in Mannheim, Germany. That led to the German Mummy Project — an effort to investigate and preserve the mummies — which led to museums in across Europe loaning items to the three-year U.S. tour, which is making its seventh and final stop in Salt Lake City.

"It's very unusual to get 21 loaning institutions from seven European countries to loan their object for a limited, three-year U.S. tour," Corwin said.

There are so many things to see from so many eras that Gill-Frerking adds: "Everybody will find something in here that they love, whether it's the baron and his leather boots or the bog dog or the crocodile or whatever it is."

Yes, a fluffy dog. Gill-Frerking insists she doesn't have favorites, but she is partial to the bog dog — the mummy of a small dog discovered in a German peat bog.

"It's a 500-year-old fluffy dog from a peat bog, and I just have a thing about peat bog mummies anyway," she said. "But it's fluffy!" —

'Mummies of the World: The Exhibition'

When • Feb. 16-May 27

Where • The Leonardo, 209 E. 500 South, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $22.50 (adults 18-64), $19.50 (seniors 65+, youths 13-17, and students and military with valid ID), $18 (children 3-12 and groups of 15 or more)

Where to buy • At or at the Leonardo