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Mummies, Mugs, and Museum Shops August 30, 2005
by Wijnand van der Sanden

Bog body gifts raise questions about using the dead as marketing tools.


What passes over the counters of museum shops is rarely a topic of discussion. The merchandise is usually brightly colored, educational or serving some other useful purpose. Many of the objects offered for sale we would class as kitsch, but that's something we can live with. Sometimes, however, we come across things that are worse than kitsch, and we can't help wondering whether ethical lines have been crossed. This is now the case in Canada and the United States, where, in the context of the travelling exhibition "The Mysterious Bog People," representations of a Dutch and a German bog body--Yde Girl and Neu Versen Man (Roter Franz or Red Franz)--have come to be printed on a range of utilitarian products and foodstuffs. Before going into this, I will first discuss how European museums treat bog bodies, how the public responds to them, and what museum shops in Europe offer for sale in this context.

Restricting ourselves to northern and northwestern Europe, we may conclude that exhibiting human remains recovered from archaeological contexts does not violate any taboos. In several museums, the public comes face to face with human remains recovered from bogs, some preserved in exceptionally good condition. The most important bog bodies are to be found in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, the British Museum in London, the Drents Museum in Assen, the Landesmuseum für Natur und Mensch in Oldenburg, the Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum in Hanover, the Archäologisches Landesmuseum der Stiftung Schleswig-Holsteinische Landesmuseen Schloss Gottorf in Schleswig, the Forhistorisk Museum in Moesgård, the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen, and Silkeborg Museum in Silkeborg. In all these museums the bog bodies occupy a special place. Some visitors come to these museums specially to see the mummy or mummies. This is for example the case at Silkeborg Museum, where Tollund Man has been the focus of attention for more than 50 years. He presumably owes his great popularity to his peaceful appearance and what are generally described as his noble features. The Dutch Yde Girl also scores very high in terms of popularity. In her case it's not noble features that win the public's affection--quite the contrary, she actually looks terrifying--but the young age at which she died. Yde Girl died around the age of 16. She was strangled with a woollen woven band and deposited in a small bog. Shortly after its discovery, in May 1897, the mummy made its way into the Drents Museum. In May 1994 the museum presented a reconstruction of the girl's face to the world. This reconstruction, which was made by Richard Neave of Manchester University, generated a lot of publicity, winning Yde Girl international fame. She inspired a radio play, several children's books, a song, and several poems. An artist organised a Miss Lookalike contest, whose winner undeniably resembles Neave's reconstruction. All these reactions had one thing in common: they were not organised by the Drents Museum. They were initiatives proposed by third parties, some more successful than others. All the publicity surrounding the reconstruction of Yde Girl's head prompted the University of Manchester to conclude an official contract with the Drents Museum to the effect that a portion of the proceeds of the sale of commercial articles bearing representations of the reconstruction would go to the university. If you take a look round the Drents Museum's shop today, you will soon find that the high expectations have never been met.

So what can you buy in this and other European museum shops? Besides books, slides, posters, and postcards, the museums in Dublin, London, Assen, Emden, Oldenburg, Hanover, Schleswig, Silkeborg, Moesgård and Copenhagen sell very few bog-body-related articles whose production was commissioned by the museums themselves. To the best of my knowledge, the only such articles are those sold in the shops of the Drents Museum (key rings, thimbles, and ties bearing a representation of the facial reconstruction of Yde Girl) and Moesgård Museum (a pen with a representation of the corpse of Grauballe Man). So, leaving the pen and ties out of the picture (showing the "portrait" of a strangled child on an item of clothing that has to be tied in a noose to wear it seems rather cynical to me), it can safely be said that the museums concerned show a fairly reserved attitude. They have not discussed this matter together, but they appear to tacitly agree about what is acceptable and what is not. The ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums provides few guidelines for such matters, the only reference of relevance is in section 2.11, on Income-Generating Activities, which states that objects offered for sale by museums should respect the integrity of the originals. The code moreover explicitly refers to replicas, reproductions, and copies, whereas I am now talking about photos of the bodies themselves and facial reconstructions on (utilitarian) objects. So we may conclude that European museums have no problems about exhibiting bog bodies, nor about selling postcards depicting the bodies (a few museums also sell posters), and that the few other objects they sell in this context--leaving aside the Moesgård pen--bear only representations of facial reconstructions, and not of human remains.

Toward the end of the 1990s, the Drents Museum came up with the idea of organising an exhibition focusing on votive objects recovered from peat bogs in the northern part of the Netherlands and northwest Germany together with the Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum in Hanover and two Canadian museums--the Museum of Civilisation in Ottawa and the Glenbow Museum in Calgary. The exhibition was to present objects ranging in date from the Mesolithic to the sub-recent as well as bog bodies from that timespan. It was to be called "The Mysterious Bog People" and was to travel from Hanover to Ottawa, then on to Calgary, Assen, Manchester and several museums in the USA. The presentation was officially opened on May 8, 2002 in Hanover, where its title was changed to the somewhat less sensational "Der Tempel im Moor" ("The Temple in the Bog"). In Germany, the exhibition attracted some 32,000 visitors. The NLM's shop sold key rings in the form of two wooden anthropomorphic figures that were found along a bog trackway, badges and cuff links bearing a representation of the Bronze Age temple of Barger-Oosterveld, and picture postcards of the museum's own bog body, Red Franz.


When the presentation moved on to Canada things changed. The exhibition caused quite a stir even before its opening. First Nations (Native American) staff members of the CMC were somewhat perturbed when the bog bodies arrived. But their problems were solved by organising a "smudging ceremony," in which foreign curators and several First Nations CMC staff members participated. After this ceremony, which served to placate the spirits and ask for their forgiveness for any errors made by the organizers, the opening could take place as planned.

In Canada, we see a marked break in trends with respect to the use of visual material. The CMC placed the contorted head of the Yde bog body in a prominent position on one of the flags intended to catch the attention of people passing by the museum. Clearly visible is the woollen band around the girl's neck, the instrument used to strangle her. The museum shop sold T-shirts bearing the same representation. The one tooth remaining in the girl's mouth was incidentally removed by retouching--that was evidently considered too scary.

After Ottawa, where it attracted more than 316,000 visitors, the exhibition moved on to Calgary. Here it was visited by 50,000 people. In Calgary the merchandising went even further. The GM's shop sold a wide range of articles bearing a representation of the Yde bog body--again the mummy's head, complete with the woollen band. This evocative depiction (now including the tooth!) is to be found on mugs, paper stands, T-shirts, shopping bags, pocket flashlights, and pens and pencils.

When the exhibition left Canada, it went to Assen (NL) and Manchester (UK), and now "The Mysterious Bog People" is on show in Pittsburgh (from July 9, 2005, to January 23, 2006). While the Drents Museum in Assen and the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester did not sell any products other than postcards and books, the range of products for sale in the shop of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History includes "Mysterious Bog Coffee" and a "Mysterious Bog Bar." The label and the wrap show the face of the German bog body, an adult male who died some time between the second and fourth centuries A.D. and was buried in the Bourtanger Moor, where he was discovered by peat cutters in 1900.


This development is extremely surprising. As I have already pointed out, the European museums whose collections include bog bodies do not sell utilitarian objects bearing representations of the bodies themselves (with the single exception of the pen of Moesgard Museum). Things are no different in other European museums displaying mummies. By European standards, the American and Canadian museums have crossed a boundary with their use of imagery. The Yde bog body, the remains of a 16-year-old girl who lived around 2,000 years ago, has during its time in the New World degenerated from a human being to a logo. In Ottawa and Calgary, her shrunken head has been printed on a flag, coffee mugs, paper stands, shopping bags, pens, pencils, and T-shirts. The people who drink from those mugs place their lips on the bog body's head. In Calgary, you may come across someone sporting a representation of a bog body on their chest and carrying an Yde "body bag" stuffed with bags of crisps and cans of beer. This imagery has depersonified the Yde girl, stripped her of her human identity and reduced her to an object. The same fate awaits Neu Versen Man in Pittsburgh and the venues beyond.


These products show in a dramatic way how different the European and New World museums deal with human remains from the distant past. Its interesting to see, yet hard to understand, that these products are sold by museums that have First Nation curators and in their day-to-day practice make every possible effort to prevent upsetting the First Nations when native human remains are involved. Clearly none of the three museums made any effort to find out how European museums approach mummies and the associated commercial aspects. Apparently some ancestors are more equal than others.

It is often said that all things that happen in the New World will in due time happen in the Old World. It will be interesting to see whether European museums will follow in this respect, too. It will not come as a surprise to you that I sincerely hope that they will not follow in the footsteps of their transatlantic counterparts. In my opinion, the production and sale of the aforementioned objects contravene the principles of the ICOM code of Ethics for Museums, and insult the integrity and dignity of human mummies. Of course, they cannot prevent third parties from producing such objects, but they can decide not to produce or sell products displaying representations of corpses in their museum shops themselves. They can also decide not to produce banners bearing such representations in front of their doors. Things could be taken even further. If large flags bearing a representation of a mummy are unacceptable, then why should a poster or postcard showing the same depiction be admissible? Museums should indeed ask themselves whether they are going too far in this respect. We may intuitively feel that representations of a perfectly preserved bog body are more acceptable than those of bog bodies with a distorted or poorly preserved face, or bog bodies showing clear evidence of how the individuals concerned met their death. In actual fact, such aesthetic considerations should be irrelevant; the main point in both cases, after all, is that the bodies represent the remains of human individuals.

One of the next stops is Los Angeles. My heart is in my throat.

Wijnand van der Sanden is archaeologist for the province of Drenthe, the Netherlands.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America