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Museums are questioning the fate of mummies and other human remains in their collections

Museum directors and curators are wondering whether these items should continue to be exhibited in the same way as works of art, or whether it would be better to store or even return such items, mummies in particular

Published: Jan 28, 2023 07:13:19 AM IST
Updated: Jan 27, 2023 05:23:37 PM IST

Museums are questioning the fate of mummies and other human remains in their collectionsIssues surrounding the conservation and exhibition of human remains are a subject of debate in the museum community. Image: Shutterstock

The museum world is increasingly questioning the thorny issue of human remains in some of the world's leading art institutions. Museum directors and curators are wondering whether these items should continue to be exhibited in the same way as works of art, or whether it would be better to store or even return such items, mummies in particular.

The British Museum houses the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities in the world, outside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. This collection includes about a hundred mummies, or rather "mummified remains" or "mummified persons."

Indeed, the London museum has decided to avoid using the term "mummy" in the future, so as not to dehumanize these bodies preserved beyond death, reports the Daily Mail. An initiative followed by the various institutions that make up the National Museums of Scotland, as well as the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle upon Tyne. "The word 'mummy' is not incorrect, but it is dehumanizing, whereas using the term 'mummified person' encourages our visitors to think of the individual," a spokesman for National Museums of Scotland told the British tabloid.

This change in terminology comes at a time when issues surrounding the conservation and exhibition of human remains are a subject of debate in the museum community. The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford announced in September 2020 that it would no longer exhibit the shrunken heads and other human relics featuring in its collection of more than 500,000 anthropological objects. "Our audience research has shown that visitors often saw the museum's displays of human remains as a testament to other cultures being 'savage,' 'primitive' or 'gruesome.' Rather than enabling our visitors to reach a deeper understanding of each other's ways of being, the displays reinforced racist and stereotypical thinking that goes against the museum's core values," museum director, Laura Van Broekhoven, said in a statement at the time.

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From popular culture to "sensationalism"

Other museums have pledged to return human remains in their collections to the countries from which they came, notably in the wake of the "Hottentot Venus" affair. This moniker refers to Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman who was exhibited like a fairground animal in England and France in the 19th century, because of her protruding buttocks and the nature of her genitalia. A cast of her remains and her skeleton were on display in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris until 1974, before being relegated to the vaults. The French state returned them to South Africa in 2002.

The fate of mummies is all the more complex since the general public has, for centuries, shown a real fascination with the Ancient Egyptian civilization -- a phenomenon known as "Egyptomania." Exhibitions devoted to Ancient Egypt generally attract crowds, as evidenced by the Tutankhamun exhibition at Paris's Grande Halle de La Villette in 2019. More than 1.42 million visitors came to admire 150 objects found in the tomb of the young pharaoh, 60 of which had left Egypt for the first time. This huge popularity made the show France's most-visited exhibition to date.

The decision of the British Museum, the National Museums of Scotland and the Great North Museum: Hancock is not unanimously supported by archaeologists and experts on Ancient Egypt. Some see it as a form of cultural snobbery, given that the term "mummy" has been commonly used in the English language since 1615. "When museums cut themselves off from popular culture they show contempt for how we all understand words, meanings and history," British historian Jeremy Black told the Daily Mail.

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In France, the Muséum de Toulouse has taken a singular approach to the conservation of mummies and other human relics. These are the focus of the exhibition "Momies. Corps préservés, corps éternels" [Mummies. Preserved bodies, eternal bodies], that the museum is hosting until July 2. Here, visitors can choose whether to see them, or not, thanks to the use of one-way windows accompanied by a warning pictogram. Visitors have to press a switch so that the lighting goes on, allowing them to see the human mummies featured in the exhibition. A system that seeks to avoid a "sensationalist" approach or even a certain "morbid voyeurism," according to the museum.

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