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Beyond Stone & Bone

Hiding Mummies
by Heather Pringle
July 4, 2008

The mummy of Pharoah Seti I A few days ago, I received a fascinating email from a British researcher concerning a worrying decision that the Manchester Museum recently made. This rather dour Victorian-looking museum holds a large and very prestigious collection of Egyptian mummies—more than a dozen human mummies and 31 animal mummies, many of which were excavated in the nineteenth century by the likes of Sir Flinders Petrie. Over the past 30 years, the Manchester mummies have inspired important research projects and a new scientific specialization: biomedical research in Egyptology.

In May, the powers that be at the museum decided to cover up the mummies on display. The British public, observed museum director Nick Merriman in a BBC interview, now question the ethics of displaying the dead, particularly after the controversial exhibit of human anatomical specimens, Body Worlds 4, opened in Britain. So the Manchester Museum dutifully responded by reshrouding its mummies.

But was the museum really acting on the public’s behalf? I have toured that gallery, and can attest that it presents the mummies with reverence. Moreover, I could see that children and adults alike loved it. Indeed, Rosalie David, a former Keeper of Egyptology at the museum, once told me that “the first thing that people ask us when they come in the doors is ‘Where are the mummies and where are the dinosaurs?’ ”

So I wasn’t surprised to learn that the decision has infuriated the museum’s greatest fans, stirring up an angry beehive’s worth of comments from more than 150 people on its website. It seems that the museum staff badly misjudged public sentiment, pandering instead to the oppressive climate of political correctness in some academic circles.

I sincerely hope that this fiery public reaction will dissuade other museums from following suit. The Egyptians, after all, are not clamoring to remove mummies from public view: indeed they display the bodies of ancient pharaohs in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. And I personally feel that the Egyptian mummy exhibits draw children away from the artificial worlds of video games and Second Life and into the galleries of the world’s major museums. The small number of mummies on display worldwide profoundly stir the imagination of the young, and, for many, they inspire a lifelong interest in archaeology and Egyptology.

That’s not something to toss away—without a big fight.

Comments posted here do not represent the views or policies of the Archaeological Institute of America.

4 comments for "Hiding Mummies"

  • Reply posted by Kristen (July 8, 2008, 2:12 pm):

    Having just read your book, the Mummy Congress (always on my list, but this blog inspired me to finally get to it), I think I come down on the side of reverance – as long as the mummies are presented with reverence and care, I believe public display is appropriate.

    Although I admit to some queasiness with this view. You discuss in your book a survey someone did “Would YOU want to be a mummy?” I believe many people said no, fearful that they would end up on display. It’s an important question, and since I would probably say “no” for some of the same reasons, how fair is it to say “yes” just because someone has been dead thousands of years and may not have someone of their own culture left to speak for them?

    And yet, your description of the Chinchorro and Incan mummies gives me pause. If I understood the book correctly, those mummies were intended to be, in effect, displayed, to be part of daily life, and reverenced for the role they continued to play even in death as elders. So there certainly is some precedent for considering that mummies can be part of our lives in some inspirational form.

    I think in the end, so long as the mummies are presented reverentially, and with a purpose for adding to our knowledge and appreciation for past cultures and people, that displaying them is ok.

    Your blog leaves me with one question about reverence – are the mummies in Manchester or elsewhere displayed without shrouds and linens? Even the Chinchorro mummies had their protective coverings, and the Incan mummies clothes were repaired. I’d like to think that reverence would include some kind of covering, esp. where coverings were expected at the time of death. Even for those accidental deaths, such as Otzi, a covering might be appropriate, although the uniqueness of his presentment may be justification for the exception.

         

  • Reply posted by Sandy (July 9, 2008, 12:23 am):

    Hey Heather! I’m Sandy, and though I’m really young, I love archeology.

    I have to say that I AGREE with you that Museums should display the mummies and very ancient artifacts to the world. I am sure that most students like me are very interested in ancient history. (It is so much more interesting then learning about world war I/II , however important it is..) I would most like to see a real mummy without needing to travel all the way to Egypt to see mummies.

    For the benefit of students like me, I hope that other museums will put up the interesting ancient history so that students will be able to learn more about the history.

    And of course, Yes. It is true that Egyptian mummy, be it exhibits, pictures or movies, draws us children away from the digital world. Why, my interest in Archeology and Egyptology is much greater then my interest in video games since I heard about Mummies!

         

  • Reply posted by Kristen (July 9, 2008, 11:53 am):

    Hey Sandy – I share your interest with ancient history, and always did when I was young (too many years ago), and admit to usually finding it more interesting than recent history. But I have to admit that there is always more I need to learn, and here’s why: The first book by Heather Pringle that I read, “The Master Plan: Himmler’s Scholars and The Holocaust” shows how important understanding ancient history can be to understanding our more recent history. It is an incredible story, how Hitler and Himmler twisted the past so much to create the horrors of World War II.

    And in “The Mummy Congress” It reminds us how important it is to understand all of our history, when Heather mentions how Slobodan Milosevic twisted ancient Serbian history, and an venerated Serbian mummy ancestor, to create the ethnic cleansing there.

    It just reminds us how much of ancient history really doesn’t always stay ancient, and how important it is to understand both.

         

  • Reply posted by Sandy (July 21, 2008, 11:16 pm):

    Hey Kristen! I’ve just learnt more about Hitler and Nazis. It was the about building the Greater Germany. I’m really glad I took history and I’m certainly going to buy “The Master Plan: Himmler’s Scholars and The Holocaust”.

    “The Mummy Congress” sounds pretty important too so I guess I’m going to look for that too! Now that you’ve mentioned it, I guess ancient history and current history no matter what kind is important. I’ll just have to work harder for history!

         


About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit www.lastwordonnothing.com.

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