‘Thinking makes it so’: reflections on the ethics of displaying Egyptian mummies
Keywords: Egyptian, mummies, museums, exhibition, ethics
AbstractControversy about museums’ possession and exhibition of human remains has usually affected those identified as ancestral remains by indigenous peoples. Egyptian mummies, with their long tradition of exhibition, seemed exempt from such considerations until the covering of unwrapped remains in the Egyptian gallery at The Manchester Museum in 2008. The museum’s representatives argued that this covering responded to visitors’ objections, but sub sequent widespread protest against the measure suggested that it had been carried out with inadequate public consultation. With reference to the Manchester case, I will present two arguments to expand the scope of current debates about human remains display. The first argument favours the consideration of museum visitors from cultures other than those represented by exhibited remains as legitimate stakeholders in the remains’ management, including consideration of their personal reasons and historical precedents for favouring display. The second argument, which reveals the spurious bases of many objections to Egyptian mummies’ display and demonstrates their derivation from misconceptions promulgated by the media, shows that the grounds for public objections to human remains display should be more critically examined. If perpetuated rather than halted, the display of mummies could be used to actively combat disparaging media stereotypes. Human remains exhibition is not inherently offensive, but can be regarded as such by visitors whose cultural backgrounds fail to prepare them for encounters with the dead. Removing the dead from display avoids engagement with ethics debates rather than facing the challenge of finding ways to respect the dead by facilitating encounters with them.