Under wraps: VMFA has bodies in the basement

A small pewter lion reclines on my desk. It’s a souvenir from the British Museum’s traveling exhibition, “The Treasures of Tutankhamun,” which sparked Egypt-o-mania across the U.S. during the late ‘70s. Remember Steve Martin’s “King Tut” song? (Too young? Watch it on YouTube.) Good times!

Now the British Museum’s latest foray into Egyptology, “Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb,” is enlivening— or rather en-deaden-ing— the ground floor of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibit, whose only U.S. stop is Richmond, examines ancient Egyptian beliefs about death and the afterworld, plus it showcases how 21st century technology has enabled new insights into mummification while leaving cadavers’ linen wrappings intact.

At the heart of the exhibit is the mummy of a priest named Nesperennub, who died circa 800 BC. Viewers first don 3-D glasses, cleverly designed to look like stylized Egyptian eyes, in order to watch a brief film illustrating how scientists have used scans and digital modeling to learn about Nesperennub’s life and death, without ever removing his body from its spectacularly painted cartonnage case. Narrated by British actor Patrick Stewart— yes, Star Trek’s Captain Jean Luc Piccard— the film has Nesperennub’s mummy zooming around the screen like the Starship Enterprise.

After the film ends, doors open onto a 7,000-sqaure-foot exhibition space, which in addition to Nesperennub’s coffin and remains, features over 100 objects, ranging from more mummies (including cats!) to monumental statuary to small amulets. Concise commentary guides the viewer through lessons in Egyptian cosmology, corpse preparation, and funerary practices.

Objects believed helpful for gaining admission and adjusting to the afterlife are particularly eye-opening. Got a few embarrassing secrets you’d rather not reveal on Judgement Day? Make sure your loved ones bury you with a heart scarab amulet, which will prevent your heart from telling the truth.

Egyptians also envisioned the afterworld as an agrarian paradise, where the happy dead work in the fields. What? You were hoping for a more leisurely post-mortem existence? No problem, just ask your family to send you off with a phalanx of “shabti” figurines, who will serve as your surrogate laborers.

The exhibition hall’s color scheme of Egyptian blue, russet, and sand, as well as the architectural design of the presentation, enhance the viewing experience. In life, Nesperennub’s priestly title in life was “Opener of the Doors of Heaven.” Appropriately, in death, he is still performing that service.

 The exhibition, “Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb,” is on view through March 11 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, its only U.S. stop on its world tour. 200 N. Boulevard. 804-340-1405.