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Mummies in the art museum

April 29, 2019

Over the course of history, philosophers, theologians, artists, and writers alike have toiled with the question: “what is art?”


To define art is no easy task, but various theories and philosophies of art can be simplified and broken down into three categories:



Mimesis, or art as representation.


Art as expression of emotional content.


Art as form.[1]


But how do mummies, or the broader spectrum of burial rituals (in Egypt and further afield), fit within the context of the art museum?





I started thinking about this when visiting the Minneapolis Institute of Arts last week and spent some time in with this coffin and cartonnage (ca. 945-712BCE) in the museums African art galleries.


I began to wonder how these burial objects fit within the scope of “art”. That is not to say that these objects are not aesthetically pleasing, but are they art?


I would argue that they are.


One of the first definitions of art comes from Plato (ca. 427-347BCE, long after the creation of this object), who formulated the idea of art as “mimesis”. The idea that art is an imitation of life, a representation or the replicating of something that is both beautiful and meaningful.[2]


Now consider this cartonnage.


The polychromatic images that decorate the various registers; prayers to the gods for divine protection in the afterlife. Knowing this, the visual images represent something both beautiful and meaningful to those creating the cartonnage, the family of the deceased, and to us today. As museum goers digest the images on the surface, I hope they, like me, are struck by the artistry and detail in every scene.


In terms of “art as emotional content” this is a more 19th-century mode of thinking in which a work of art is meant to evoke meaning, but more in terms of the sublime and the dramatic. However, this can still hold true with this object. My emotional response may not be as strong as what these romantic thinkers were hoping, however I was in awe by how beautiful the whole treatment of the surface was. But I found myself considering the raw emotion of a burial, and how that might be channeled into the decorations on the cartonnage.


I cannot help but wonder if the emotional response is amplified, or dampened, by the presence of human remains or lack thereof.


Lastly, art as form. This is probably one of the more complicated to define,