Many thanks to all of you who contributed to the discussion on the covering of the mummies at the Manchester Museum in April 2008. Below is a summary of the main issues raised and the Museum’s response. Apologies for the length of the posting!
The discussion on the blog, https://egyptmanchester.wordpress.com in response to the posting on 6th May 2008, ‘Covering the mummies’ where the covering of Asru, Khary and the child mummy was explained, has been lively, generating around 150 responses, and covering a number of different issues pertinent to the display of human remains in museums. This posting is now archived, as an update on the decisions regarding the display of the mummies has been more recently posted, but the original posting is still generating occasional responses.
(I) General consensus
The overwhelming majority (c. 85%) of people have expressed the opinion that they would like the mummies to be uncovered and to remain on display. A strong thread running through this viewpoint has been that museum visitors should be able to make the choice as to whether they view human remains, and not have that decision made for them. A simple solution iterated by many has been to put up a sign indicating that there are human remains on display, in order to allow visitors to make the choice about viewing them. Related to the feeling that visitors should have the opportunity to make their own minds up has been the expression of disappointment that the Manchester Museum appeared to make the decision to experimentally cover the three mummies without waiting until the end of a clearly designated consultation period. One of the suggestions that has been made in a number of postings is that the bodies could be covered but the face, hands, and feet revealed, as is done in Egyptian museums, in order to allow the bodies to retain their dignity, as well as their humanity.
The minority in favour of covering the mummies, or removing them from view, has praised the Museum for being experimental and courageous, and suggested that displaying the mummies, especially if uncovered, disregards the wishes of the ancient Egyptians.
The recent covering of three of the Egyptian mummies on display was in response to a small number of visitor complaints, and which triggered an experiment in ways of displaying the mummies. The response to the covering has revealed that a greater number of people prefer to be able to view the mummies, and the Museum is taking this into account.
On Monday 4th August 2008, Khary is being uncovered, Asru’s face and feet will be uncovered, and the child mummy will be removed from display – this mummy is a loan and will return to its own institution some time soon.
The Manchester Museum utilises consultation to inform its activities, and is commissioning research into visitor responses to displaying (Egyptian) human remains on the galleries as part of the ongoing consultation process on displaying the dead. The issue of choice as to whether visitors view the mummies on display or not has been addressed by installing panels at either end of the Egyptian galleries that indicate the presence of human remains, and offering an alternative route bypassing the galleries. Until the galleries are redeveloped, a route through the galleries avoiding the human remains entirely is not possible.
The other main themes of the discussion are summarised below:
(II) Displaying Egyptian human remains in museums
The arguments in support of displaying Egyptian human remains in museums, and at Manchester, can be summarised as follows:
- The role of a museum is to educate and enlighten, and there is a genuine scientific and historical benefit in seeing the mummified bodies of the Egyptians, in order to learn about both the ancient culture and beliefs, and mummification, health and disease in the ancient world;
- Museums have a responsibility to counteract the ‘freak-show’ aspect of mummies generated by popular culture – contextualised and sensitive displays could achieve this;
- Academic research on visitor reaction to the display of Egyptian human remains has revealed that there is little objection to their display;
- The Egyptian collection at Manchester is of international significance, the Museum/University is world famous for its mummy studies, and the Museum should continue to support this.
The Manchester Museum is committed to educating and enlightening its audiences. The Museum supports scientific research into human remains, and values ongoing research into the Egyptian mummies being undertaken at the KNH-centre for Forensic Egyptology, University of Manchester, and elsewhere. The method of displaying the Egyptian human remains is subject to ongoing debate in the museum community worldwide, and The Manchester Museum places itself at the forefront of this debate.
(III) Respect for the ancient dead
In terms of the concept of respect, the discussion raised the following points:
· What is the definition of respect in this instance, and how does the covering of the mummies square with the display of Lindow Man?
· Viewing mummies is more respectful than hiding them from view;
· The covering of the human body in itself can be regarded as disrespectful by those who believe that the naked body should be celebrated;
· Some postings suggested that the covering of the mummies could be compared to Victorian prudery, where table legs were covered and genitalia on Classical Greek, and some Egyptian, statues and reliefs, were covered or removed.
Definitions of ‘respect’ must by default be contextually, culturally and temporally contingent, and can differ from person to person. In terms of the display of human remains, The Manchester Museum understands the term to mean culturally appropriate, sensitive and informative. In relation to displaying the Egyptian mummies, the Museum wants to ensure that the cultural beliefs of the ancient dead, and those of the visitors, are taken into account as far as is possible. The ongoing consultation and research process into displaying the dead will produce a form of respectful display that the Museum hopes will be acceptable to the majority of its audiences.
(IV) Ethics and the display of human remains
In terms of ethics, the discussion raised the following points:
· The ontological status of the dead is different from that of the living – they do not have rights, we have responsibilities for them;
· Opinions differ on the wishes of the dead, with some people suggesting that museums should apply a more equitable gaze and bear in mind that the ancient Egyptians would not have wanted to be on public display. This argument has been countered by the opinion that following such a line of thinking amounts to an imposition of one set of cultural beliefs on another;
· A number of postings queried the influence of the Pagan group, Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD), on the decision making process of the Museum in relation to its human remains;
· There was a recognition that a fully ethical response would be to return the bodies to their original tombs, along with their associated artefacts, but that this was unrealistic.
It is possible, through the tombs, texts and artefacts from ancient Egypt, to gain a level of understanding of the meaning of death to the ancient Egyptians. The Manchester Museum will bear this in mind when considering whether and how to display the Egyptian mummies, and to explain the Egyptian approach to death and the Afterlife. The beliefs of contemporary groups such as Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD) have been incorporated into approaches to the ancient British dead elsewhere in the Museum, for example, the current display of Lindow Man, but do not influence approaches to the ancient dead from other cultures.
The Manchester Museum human remains policy can be found here: http://www.museum.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/reportspolicies/