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With China Treasures Under Wraps, Pa. Museum Takes 'Dummy Mummy' Route

Some of China's most treasured antiquities — the mummies of Xinjiang — have been museum-hopping in America for the past few months. It took decades of negotiations to get them here. And they've been seen by tens of thousands of visitors at museums in Santa Ana, Calif., and Houston.

But a much-anticipated final stop in Philadelphia — where the mummies were meant to headline the Secrets of the Silk Road exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology — has run into an unexpected roadblock involving the Chinese government.

The exhibition opened in time. The mummies are still in Houston, though. And the artifacts that were supposed to go on display with them? They're in Philadelphia — in giant wooden crates, unopened. It's a show on artifacts from China's Silk Road that's lacking any artifacts from China's Silk Road.

"It's a Dada wonderland in here now," as exhibit designer Kate Quinn puts it.

Ever since they found out they wouldn't be allowed to take the antiquities out of the crates, Quinn and her staff have been working overtime, building "dummy mummies" out of papier-mache. They set up worktables right across from the crated-up objects, printed out images from the catalog and from people's Flickr accounts, and cut them out with X-Acto knives. Then they mounted them on sticks or put them flat in a glass case. It's a little surreal.

But it's set up so gorgeously, as many visitors pointed out to me on opening day, that it's still a great exhibit.

So what happened?

I reached Tidin Xhang, first secretary of the cultural office at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. He told me this: "According to the law for protection of archaeological exhibits, the maximum amount of time to have a tour overseas is eight months. The law is the law, and we cannot go contrary to the law."

The mummies' eight months, needless to say, is up.

Xhang contends the Penn Museum made a mistake when it reached its own agreement with China, and didn't check the timeline.

Penn Museum director Richard Hodges, meanwhile, says negotiations with the Chinese government are ongoing, but refuses to comment on their substance. He maintains it's just a simple miscommunication, using this example: "It's a bit like the difference between English English, which of course is Shakespearean English, and American English, which of course is just a dialectical version. And sometimes between the two, you guys" — he means Americans — "get it wrong."

In fact, Hodges seems to think the misunderstanding has been largely cleared up, and Penn will still get a chance to display the antiquities.

"I think there is every likelihood this will come about," he says. "Every likelihood."

Maybe the best explanation comes from Lothar von Falkenhausen, a renowned specialist in Chinese archaeology.

"This is the kind of thing that happens," he says, "when people who care to do something that seems meaningful hurt themselves against people who care about administration."

Bureaucracy isn't unique to the Chinese, he says. And failing to dot every "i" and cross every "t" isn't a specifically American failing.

Not that we know for sure that's what really happened, of course.

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Zoe Chace explains the mysteries of the global economy for NPR's Planet Money. As a reporter for the team, Chace knows how to find compelling stories in unlikely places, including a lollipop factory in Ohio struggling to stay open, a pasta plant in Italy where everyone calls in sick, and a recording studio in New York mixing Rihanna's next hit.

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