Princesses (detail) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Leafing through a slightly intimidating looking press package on the Ashmolean’s Ancient Egypt and Nubia Galleries on my way to Oxford, I wished I’d day dreamed less in my history lessons at school. Thankfully the fast Great Western train ride from London gives me the chance to consult my reliable friend Wikipedia by typing in ‘Mummy’. Ahem.

In Oxford, I learn the Ashmolean has undergone serious revamping (including a redesign by Rick Mather Architects) to unveil treasures of which some have been tucked away in storage for the past 80 years. On 26th November, the Ashmolean opened its new galleries of Ancient Egypt and Nubia along with artist Angela Palmer’s work inspired by these collections.

The new galleries are an impressive showcase of one of the best collections of ancient Egyptian material outside Cairo, but also an equally impressive demonstration of huge advances in conservation science. The result is a fascinating merging of ancient history, modern science and contemporary art covering over 5000 years of human occupation in the Nile Valley.

With a somewhat limited knowledge of ancient history (to say the least…), I’m sure I wasn’t the only one finding traveling thousands of years back in time difficult. But Angela Palmer’s Unwrapped:The Story of a Child Mummy tells a more intimate tale through an ethereal sculpture of a child. The installation of works gives the viewer a chance to see beneath the wrappings of the Egyptian child mummy who died between AD80–120.

Along with a team of specialists, Palmer took the mummy to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford where a group of radiologists conducted 2500 CT-scans on the mummy to reveal a boy aged about 2 years old who probably died of pneumonia. Palmer, who has always been intrigued by mapping, then developed a technique to create a 3-D representation of the mummy. By drawing details from the CT-scans onto several sheets of glass, she reconstructed the internal architecture of the boy’s body.

The mummified body is displayed next to one of the sculptures and a film documenting Palmer’s visit to the village where the child came from. “I began to feel an eerie closeness to the child and felt compelled to visit the tomb where he had lain for nearly 2,000 years before being taken to Oxford,” Palmer explains. The poignant setting created by the artist incites the viewer to imagine a life very different thousands of years ago in Ancient Egypt.

Admission to the Museum is free

Unwrapped: The Story of a Child Mummy is on display till 4 March 2012
Ashmolean Museum
Beaumont Street
Oxford OX1 2PH

Words by Eve Keskinen

Bastet © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Shrine (detail) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Coffin lid of Djeddjehutyiuefankh © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford


Angela Palmer, Ashmolean, Eve Keskinen, Rick Mather Architects,