In the ancient Egypt of Hollywood movies, the joke is usually on the mummy. Sure, he or she sought eternal life, but what that ultimately wrought was highly unsightly physical deterioration after lying in cramped quarters for thousands of years. Not to mention the fact that when disturbed, all of that post-mortal rest actually made him territorial, stir-crazy and quick to launch, lemming-like, into an attack against any and all audacious human explorers who dared to crack the tomb.

In the ancient Egypt of Hollywood movies, the joke is usually on the mummy. Sure, he or she sought eternal life, but what that ultimately wrought was highly unsightly physical deterioration after lying in cramped quarters for thousands of years. Not to mention the fact that when disturbed, all of that post-mortal rest actually made him territorial, stir-crazy and quick to launch, lemming-like, into an attack against any and all audacious human explorers who dared to crack the tomb.

The aspirations of the real people who became mummies are an open mystery that's literally written all over their coffins, their shrouds and the tombs in which they were buried. They had ideas about how to live and how to die that would guarantee an afterlife, but they also hoped to be as comfortable as possible for eternity, surrounded by the practical objects that one might need to get by for forever and ever.

"There was such a firm and strong belief that life was going to continue, that there was this life force that could not be destroyed," said Dominique Vasseur, associate curator at the Columbus Museum of Art. "Objects that might have been used in everyday life, like makeup utensils, applicators for kohl, toys, mummified dogs and cats ... were placed in the tomb with the person."

The exhibit To Live Forever, which opens this weekend at the Columbus Museum of Art, looks at ancient Egyptians' beliefs about death and immortality through the prism of more than 100 objects that they tried to take with them.

Unlike the glowing, gilded masks and items of royalty seen in some of the most famous Egyptian exhibitions, this show includes many objects belonging to the simply well-to-do, as well as the less wealthy.

The pieces share some of the basic aesthetics and symbols of their aristocratic counterparts, such as the Eye of Horus, which was thought to allow the mummy to look though its confines into the tomb after death. Here, alongside some of the more elaborate limestone and painted wooden sarcophagi, there are terracotta mummy masks painted yellow to give the impression of gold.

Among the ordinary creature comforts of earthly life, many tombs also contained small figures, about a half-a-foot to a foot tall, called shabtis. There are several on view in the exhibition.

"These were little surrogate workers," said Vasseur. "You would have at least one, or if you were very wealthy, you might have 365 shabtis - one for every day of the year."

Edward Bleiberg, curator of Egyptian, classical and ancient Middle Eastern art at the Brooklyn Museum, was responsible for putting the exhibit together. Columbus is its second stop on a multi-city tour.

"[Bleiberg] had a strong mission to rethink how Brooklyn's collection is used and seen by a wider audience," said Vasseur. "He revitalizes these objects by really putting them in the context of what they meant and how they were used."

One of the exhibition's central figures is an extremely unusual mummy named Demetrios, who, all on his own, embodies a trifecta of ancient cultures: An Egyptian thought to have a Greek ethnic background, he is believed to have died in the first century, and likely witnessed the country become a province of the Roman Empire.

He is the only actual human mummy in the exhibition. Demetrios' body has never been unwrapped, but CT scans were able to help scientists estimate that he was close to 60 years old when he died.

While he was entombed in Egyptian style, several details of his afterlife preparations were uncommon. Prepared as a "red shroud portrait mummy" (there are fewer than a dozen of these known to exist), Demetrios was wrapped in red-painted linen over his bandages, with an inscription written in Greek instead of Egyptian hieroglyphics. And his death mask is not exactly the stuff one usually associates with Egyptian burial.

"Demetrios actually has a quite realistically painted portrait in encaustic," Vasseur said. "For many, many years, the actual mummy portrait has been removed from the body - this has been an opportunity to return the portrait to the body in the way the body was found. It's quite eerie, quite striking and quite handsome."



Pyramid scheme

Expect Columbus to be preoccupied with ancient Egypt throughout 2009. Once the museum's exhibition has given locals its sense of ancient Egyptian culture, values and aesthetics, COSI will give us another set of tools to unlock our understanding of ancient artifacts.

During the final week of To Live Forever in late spring, COSI will open Lost Egypt: Ancient Secrets, Modern Science, an interactive exhibit conceived, designed and built locally.

The two exhibitions opening in the same calendar year was happy accident that brought about a rare opportunity for partnership between the museums, as well as several local libraries. Events, suggested reading lists and a "Passport" of activities can be found at EgyptInColumbus.com.

COSI's hands-on Lost Egypt exhibition will focus on the science and technology that contemporary archeologists use to decipher the age, materials and meaning of these North African relics.

As a member of the Science Museum Exhibit Collaborative, COSI worked for five years to pull together this exhibition; after its local run from May 30 to Sept. 7, it will travel to the other six SMEC venues around the country, and possibly beyond.

As they've traveled the globe to bring Lost Egypt together, key members of COSI's Experience Division have been keeping a blog about the development of the upcoming exhibition: lostegypt.wordpress.com. -Tracy Zollinger Turner