Mummifying chickens for fun and educational profit
Maggie Koerth-Baker at 8:02 AM Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Last Thursday, I gave a presentation at the Science Museum of Minnesota. I was on my out, stepping out of the elevator lobby and into the parking garage, when I was hit by a wave of vomitous stench. The smell turned out to be coming from a not-quite-totally mummified chicken carcass held by Thor Carlson, one of the Science Museum's exhibit developers. It was fairly obvious why Carlson might want to mummify a chicken—there's a traveling King Tut exhibit at the Science Museum right now. But how true-to-history were his methods? And why a chicken, specifically? I called up Carlson this week to find out more about him, and his still-not-quite-totally mummified bird, which he's named Nefertweety.
Maggie Koerth-Baker: Tell me a little about yourself. How did you end up being a guy who mummifies chickens for a living?
Thor Carlson: Previously, I had actually been on the other end of these interviews, as a newspaper journalist. But I've volunteered here for about 10 years. Then, about 5 years ago ... well, with the way the newspaper market is these days I found myself looking for other directions. I do a lot with the Science Buzz section of our website, where we take current science topics from the news and boil them down for a general audience, and that got me into exhibit development.
One of the first projects I worked on was Lost Egypt, a traveling exhibit. While I was working on that, I came across a number of websites that tell you how to mummify chickens or cornish game hens. The idea just stuck in my head and I decided to try it out now that we have another Egypt exhibit. We try to have something on Science Buzz that relates to the traveling exhibit. And we have a history of looking at some of the grosser things in science. For instance, when we had a CSI exhibit a few years ago, Science Buzz took a pig carcass and recorded it on video as it decomposed over several weeks.
MKB: Why mummify a chicken?
TC: The museum has actually received feedback from a number of schools that did this with cornish game hens. They donated the mummified and wrapped hens to the museum afterwards. So we thought, "Let's do a chicken." It's a little bigger. It'll take more time. And we could go to the store and buy one that's already gutted and cleaned. It is taking a lot longer than we expected, though. We've really been reminded that this is something of an experiment.
It's really about education. The kids are learning about Egyptology and why mummification was important and how it might have been done. And one of the things we're finding out is that we don't know for sure all the details of how a mummifier did his job.
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