Museum of the Mummies



Now to pay the stygian ferryman his toll. The admission booth lay at the end of the museum's front arcade, which could fill on a good weekend visit. Forty-five pesos for the museum, sixty with the additional "Cult to the Dead" hall: half the cost of a movie ticket and twice as engrossing. I'd been here before two years ago, but with a chorus ensemble of relatives. This time the aria's going solo. Just me ... and over a hundred desiccate corpses within the halls of whispers. I climbed the short set of steps behind the booth and vanished from the living world.
The entrances to the Cult to the Dead hall and to the mummy gallery diverged at the foyer. I stepped into the former.

"O man who would pursue broken vanities! Here ends life and begins eternity." So read the large inscription upon the tombstone wall, capped with a cold skull peering down at the visitors lured into the cult hall. An overhead soundtrack played the chilled screams of hapless human prey to the supernatural, their shrieks swept away in the breeze of a moonlit forest. I entered the hall's long corridor, plastered to resemble a rotting catacomb tunnel. Along the walls were windowed niches showcasing the most eccentrically dressed corpses in the museum: an allegedly irradiated miner whose bones glowed green; a skeleton punctured through with spikes rising from the bottom of its casket; an infant with clasped hands and an ornately laced dress; a weird, cloaked harridan with bound wrists and wiry hair; and, beneath a thick, transparent floor panel upon which I could walk, a skeleton embellished with vampire fangs and a Dracula cape, the most sacrilegiously campy of the lot. Within an uninviting din a glass case displayed a layer of bones strewn among fake cobwebs, plastic spiders, and Victorian jars, among which a metal vise clasped a skull aloft for inspection, perhaps a specimen for some forbidden necromantic design. I mustn't get too many ideas here. The occasional holograms upon the walls featured the images of a transforming werewolf, an active microscope, and a snarling bat, to recall the original blur between the natural and occult sciences--much in the spirit of this book. Implements of restraint and punishment completed this celebration of the Mexican macabre, including cuffs hanging from a beam across the high ceiling, a rusty chastity belt with sharp metal teeth defending the woman's orifices, and a moving mannequin of a hooded executioner pulling at an already felled guillotine, its chop in the basket below. I found the hall so morbidly yet risibly grotesque. And I was having too much fun.

I finished the circuit through the corridor and entered the mummy galleries, where I was welcomed with the contorted, gaping grimaces of the first bodies on display, stacked in two-tiered rows of glass cases lined in red fabric. Within each case an overhead fluorescent bulb detailed the porous, wizened skin lingering in hues of pale brown upon a frail skeleton, on which it peeled flimsily in thin shreds or stretched tautly like dusty leather. The heads rested on small pillows of white cloth or royal velvet, to lend peaceful respite even when protruded tongues, lipless frowns, or distended jaws betrayed placid slumber. The more interesting bodies, those with evidence of notably gruesome demise or formerly prominent status, were propped to stand in tall glass cases against the chambers' corners. The galleries followed a zigzag path alternating between a series of long halls along an upper tier, all decked with rows of glass cases, and the chambers descending shortly from the halls through arched stairways to the left. Wavy brick hips crowned the buttresses separating the glass cases in the upper halls, and brown paint bordered the arches above the side stairs, both features suggesting a Spanish colonial revival architecture for this part of the museum.

I could feel death enveloping me as I took the set of short stairs down to the first chamber, which opened to a side room surrounded by corpses on all three closed walls. I immediately took to the still bodies of pallid infants in cases on the far wall, their heads laid to rest upon small ramps or pillows. Many were dressed in miniature fineries: a quilted blue sweater, a yellow silk robe, frilled white gowns, or soft pink dresses. One was even adorned in the black cloak, cross rosary, and simple broom of San Martín de Porres. They lay in the cases like bloated, dilapidated dolls, blank sockets left long from withered eyes. I was the visitor to these quarters of the dead, and I was intruding on their playtime.

One among the infants was a tiny figure, squat into a seated position, its jaws opened into a permanent prenatal gasp. With a body that could fit in my hand, it was boasted as the world's smallest mummy, drawn from the distended belly of the mother standing in the tall case at the room corner. She stood naked except for a pair of musty socks, and not a hair hung from her domed head. Her mouth was twisted into a chunky grin, as if she'd at last retired with the joy of a mouth full of scrumptious chocolate. I was then urging for chocolate.

The deceased surrounded me, their gaze often turned through the glass toward me as I zigzagged through their chthonic labyrinth. And yet this was what I had come to see: death. It was death that made these men surrender their vitality, leaving their bodies to altogether new transformations, corroding flesh and bone into sculptures of individual beauty and contemplative quietude. I was looking at death in its literal bareness. And it was death through which I must pass, even if for just the occasion, if I would navigate this underworld. Were the dead to see me as fellow decedent than wayward intruder, perhaps they would allow me passage. Perhaps they would lend me insight.

Thus I crossed the chambers with the silence of a surreptitious revenant. I meditated on what such a state would entail: no pulse, no breath, no family, no sunlight, nothing but the will to exist, occasionally sustained with a drooling gulp of warm red. How would I find structure in such a permanent threshold between life and death, or had I the courage to accept a reality without it? To become a vampire: such a world of unbridled, undiscovered, uncounted possibilities terrified me, far more than any of the half-decaying deformities around me. Yet not enough to pose as one for a few self-portraits.

I traversed the museum for two hours as I pondered and photographed about. A floral bouquet and the statuette of a local Virgin stood at the corner of the last turn before the exit, a combed rotating door flanked by a slender section of wrought-iron fence. The last daylight, carried by wisps of cumulus, seeped through their spaces as I emerged from the dim necropolis. The sun was itself sinking into the western gate to the underworld whence I was leaving. Hopeful vendors immediately past the exit were selling museum mementos, including miniature mummies shaped from pulled taffy. No thanks. I have already tasted quietus.

In the plunging blue dusk I explored downtown Guanajuato until it no longer gave good photography. The continually stopping buses dragged me back to the Irapuato station and finally Querétaro, whence I rode a taxi to Abuela's house within the hour before midnight. I silently thanked my Guanajuato hosts in repose for allowing me to enter their home. Now sleep well. I shall see you again.

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