May 24, 2008

Should Manchester’s mummies be covered up?

Posted at 8:54 pm in Similar cases

A relatively minor issue is now provoking much debate amongst museums curators & archaeologists. At the suggestion of some staff, Manchester Museum has taken the decision to shroud the unwrapped contents of mummies that are on display. The decision, made out of respect for the dead has been welcomed by Zahi Hawass.

As times evolve, museums are shifting from being collections of curiosities, through being windows onto different cultures, to now finding that in many cases they have to actually interact with the cultures (or the descendants thereof) that originally owned the artefacts that they are displaying. Museums of the west have to now accept that they must consider not only the sensibilities of their own country or culture, but also those that created the items in their collections.

ABC News (Australia)

‘Naked’ mummies cover-up welcomed
Posted Fri May 23, 2008 8:47am AEST

Egyptian antiquities chief Zahi Hawass has welcomed a decision by a British museum to cover-up its collection of ancient Egyptian mummies, saying it is a question of ethics.

Covering up the mummies is “a very important decision. I myself am with this position on an ethical basis, not a religious one,” Mr Hawass told AFP.

“We don’t want people to see our naked bodies when we are dead, so why should we allow ourselves to view the bodies and expose them in this manner,” he asked.

On Wednesday, the Manchester Museum in north-west England said two unwrapped mummies and one partly wrapped mummy out of 11 on display would be covered after visitors’ complaints that they should be treated with more respect and dignity.

The mummies will be kept under wraps temporarily while a public consultation is carried out about how best to display human remains.

The Manchester Museum is home to one of Britain’s largest collections of artefacts from ancient Egypt, with some 20,000 objects.


Guardian blogs

The great mummy cover-up
Manchester museum has recently shrouded its unwrapped mummies, sparking a debate about how – and whether – we should display ancient human remains
May 23, 2008 12:15 PM

The unbleached cotton shrouds tucked neatly around the 4,000 year old mummies in the Egyptian galleries at Manchester museum are a rare public acknowledgement of a seismic ripple shuddering through all British museums which hold human remains: is it proper to display the mummies, the sword slashed Viking skulls, the leathery Dark Age bog bodies, the sad little bones of long dead children, or are the displays no more than fairground freak shows, voyeurism glossed as academic research?

The museum itself says that it has been done out of respect – but also so that the bodies can be kept on display. It will review the initiative this summer, when one question must be whether respect and public display are compatible.

I understand that contrary to reports it wasn’t outside complaints at Manchester but concerns among the staff which led to covering of the mummies of a woman, a man and a child.

The woman had been unwrapped, and the man partly unwrapped, in the 19th century, when mummies’ bandages were often stripped as sensational public events. Nick Merriman, director at Manchester, says that this unwrapping, the interference and the fact that the mummies were no longer being displayed as found, was the crucial factor. He has no intention of having a hemp shirt made for Lindow Man, one of the most startling bog bodies, which by curious coincidence went on display at Manchester, on loan from the British Museum, at exactly the same time.

Bristol museum, which recently completely redisplayed a major Egyptian collection, keeps its unwrapped mummies in store. Instead of the previous open coffins, it now displays its two wrapped mummies with the lids slightly raised, which it considers more respectful. The gallery also has one body of a man which was curved into a foetal position to fit into a wooden box: this is now displayed in a dark case, and visitors must choose whether to light it: most do, and there have been no complaints.

The uneasy thought occurs that at both museums the changes actually ramp up the peep show element of the display.

But, at Manchester, Merriman and his deputy director Piotr Bienkowski have bravely led a public debate on an issue which most museums just hoped will go away. Several recent developments suggest it won’t: human remains have been repatriated from museums to Native American communities, to Australia and to New Zealand. In Britain there have been several reburials of remains recovered from archaeological excavations, in Christian rites or concocted “pagan” ceremonies. Honouring the Ancient Dead, an organisation that represents many pagans, is quietly compiling information on all British museums that hold human remains – purely for information, it claims.

Very occasionally we do know exactly what a dead person thought about their remains being displayed. You can go and say hello to the philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham, who typically eccentrically insisted that every human being could be preserved as an “auto-icon”,a combined memorial and resting place for the bones. And there he sits still, on his own chair in a glass case at University College London, wearing his own straw hat which was recently restored at huge expense.

For most, we’re guessing. What could anthropologists make of our own culture, where some are cryogenically preserved, some buried in elaborate stone boxes, some in wicker with non biodegradable false teeth and pacemakers carefully removed, and most reduced to pulverised ash in municipal crematoria and then scattered to wilt the roots of the municipal roses?

The response on Manchester’s website has been overwhelmingly negative, ranging from howls of outrage from disappointed visitors to serious academic concerns. Accusations of cowardice and political correctness gone mad abound. A private academic argument is out in the open, and nobody in the museum world knows exactly where it will end.

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