Saturday, June 18, 2011


There is quite a lot to consider when you put a human mummy on display. Who was the person who is now mummified, and did he or she believe in an afterlife? Surely any concept of an afterlife does not include being in a public museum case! Is the body naked (bare bones, as in unclothed and skeletonized, or just unwrapped)? What culture does it belong to, and what does having the mummy on display teach us about ancient belief systems, health, and disease?

Last week I had the great good fortune to attend the 7th World Congress on Mummy Studies in San Diego. Aside from the fact that I am apparently allergic to the flora of California, I really enjoyed the conference. Where else can you hear about a waxwork on display out west that turned out to be a mummy, or “piggies in peat” (experimental animal mummification using piglets in peat bogs in Europe)? I can truthfully say I attended more papers than I usually do because I was absolutely fascinated with the content and the range of subjects.

The first session was on the ethics of mummies—both the study of dead bodies and the display of them. The concept of stakeholder theory was introduced: who are the stakeholders in a mummy display? The scientists, the museum staff, the public, the mummy itself…and the descendants of the mummy, if they can be identified. And here is a lesson for the unwary: a protest about a “stuffed Eskimo” in a museum case incensed Greenlanders until a DNA analysis proved that the body in question was of Dutch origin. Then, the protesters said it was okay to call it a “stuffed Dutchman,” just not an Eskimo. But, as we all agreed, it was clearly not respectful to label any mummy, a dead human being, a “stuffed” anything.

But how do you show respect for a dead body or a mummy of unknown origins? Although most Western societies require permission from the family before an autopsy or a burial of a recently dead body, the correct procedure for dealing with ancient remains is often unclear. Scholars such as the anthropologists, physicians, chemists, and curators at this conference strive to balance the advancement of knowledge with cultural sensitivity whenever they can. For example, many agree that modern displays of Egyptian mummies should not reveal bare bones, large areas of dried up skin, or lone body parts. This was not always the case, as many early displays showed mummies unwrapped or dissected after autopsies. In contrast, Native American human remains, such as those formerly on display at Dickson Mounds in Illinois, are now covered up completely and are only available for scientific study on a very limited basis.

People vary in their reactions to human remains in a public museum according to their upbringing and religious beliefs, so some modern displays give the visitor a choice: you can push a button on an unlit case to see the mummy inside, or if such a display offends you, just move on. One of the curators for the traveling “Mummies of the World” exhibit told us that the public response to seeing mummies on display has so far been overwhelmingly positive. A mummy shown in a scientific context (rather than in a curio cabinet with snakes and rocks), with interesting information about the person’s life as revealed by medical imaging or DNA analysis, usually fascinates rather than horrifies.
Scientific studies can humanize a mummy by revealing unseen facts about the person inside. Two examples: a CT scan can reveal that a mummy is a child, not an adult, by showing adult teeth coming in right behind baby teeth, and DNA analysis has recently proven that the Tyrolean Iceman’s eyes were brown, not blue.

Sarah Wisseman

Archaeological mysteries:
The Mummy Blog

"Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives." -William C. Dement, professor of psychiatry (b. 1928)

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