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How To Respect A Mummy

A woman encourages her child to look at the mummy of young boy during a preview of the 'Ancient lives, new discoveries' exhibition at the British Museum in Central London on May 20, 2014.
Will Oliver/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this week, CNN published a trend piece about how some museums in Britain are phasing out the word "mummy." Instead, the museums are opting to describe a mummy as a "mummified person" or simply to refer to the dead individuals by their name. This rebrand is intended to remind museum visitors that such displays were once living people. This might seem obvious, but museum workers at the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle are apparently asked by "significant number of visitors" about whether a mummified Egyptian woman named Irtyru on display was, in fact, a real person.

It's a move with ostensibly good intentions, a fact underscored by a Daily Mail story decrying the "woke museum chiefs" behind the shift. Respect is a worthy reason for change, however awkward new language can seem, and aligns with a long, ongoing reconsideration of the ethics of mummies—or, as Doug Struck writes in Undark, "the question of whether it is unseemly, ghoulish, disrespectful, or even racist to display ancient corpses, or whether it’s a noble contribution to science and education."

The early days of mummy collecting were certainly ghoulish, with bodies pilfered from tombs and taken as souvenirs, such as the time the English lesbian collectors Amelia Edwards and Marianne Brocklehurst (slay) tried to smuggle out the mummified body of a 15-year-old temple girl but ended up tossing her body into the Nile because of the smell (not a slay). Yet looters like these are the reason Egyptian mummies populate many Western museums, and display text often occludes this context of colonial exploitation.

Nowadays, some discussions about how, exactly, to display such ill-gotten human remains veer into speculation about the perceived wishes of the ancient people themselves, but imagining how a person who lived 2,000 years ago would feel about their mortal form extracted from a cemetery and rehomed in a glass box next to the beautiful sarcophagus they might have expected to remain inside seems to me an extraordinarily silly waste of time, given who's having these conversations—and who's not. As the Egyptian Egyptologist Heba Abd El Gawad pointed out in a panel, discussions like these often happen between academics and museums, excluding contemporary Egyptian communities whose displaced ancestors are interred in these museums.

The larger question is enormously thorny and also completely beyond my purview as an occasional mummy-viewer who is not Egyptian (although if you want to learn more about the history and politics of bodily display in general, this syllabus by historian Elaine Ayers is an excellent reading list). But what I do know, as a reasonable person who thinks about things, is that rebranding a "mummy" as "mummified person" is more performative than it is a meaningful way to respect that person or the culture they came from. If you really wanted to respect the humanity of an ancient mummified person who were transported from a tomb in Egypt to a museum in London that is famous for having stolen the most famous objects in its collection—as pointed out by Miss Greece's customized "Take Me Home" Elgin Marbles cape in the Miss Universe preliminaries—that would require actually serious change. Like, I don't know, returning the mummies to Egypt?

Here's the thing. If all the Egyptian mummies in European museums were suddenly returned to Egypt, Europe would still have many mummies of their own to display however they like. England, Scotland, and Ireland are blessed with a bounty of peat bogs, with waterlogged, anaerobic conditions that prevent the decay of organic matter and can naturally tan human skin. These exquisite preservative powers have preserved the bodies of ancient people, such as the Lindow Man, who died 2,000 years ago and was found in a bog in Cheshire in 1984. (The Lindow Man, who is on display at the British Museum, has also been the subject of repatriation campaigns to bring the body home north to Manchester, near the bog where he was found.)

These mummies all have fascinating stories. Take the Old Croghan Man, who was died a violent death with his nipples cut off—which could have been a way of preventing him from ruling, as "sucking a king's nipples was a gesture of submission in ancient Ireland," the Irish archaeologist Eamonn P. Kelly told Archaeology Magazine. Isn't that wild! This is the kind of mummy culture I want to see in a European museum. A whole hall on nipple-sucking kings, please!

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