It was the smell that made me pause in our busy schedule and savour the moment. For the sweet spicy scent was gently emanating from the coffin of Shep en-Mut, a married woman who died around 800 BC and was buried in Thebes, the daughter of the Carrier of the Milk Jar named NesAmenempit. The coffin contained her mummified remains which I and my colleague were carefully placing in a display case. The busyness surrounding us was of museum timetables as we installed the new Ancient Worlds gallery. So this blog begins in a tomb-like setting - not a sacred burial space in Egypt, but a recreated tomb setting in an English museum.
Many museums struggle to engage visitors with the sense of smell – perhaps visitors encounter the ‘musty’ scent of old galleries, interactives may invite them to sniff a dish containing spices from ancient lands, or the smell of coffee wafts through the displays from the café. But as a curator the smell of objects was something I regularly noticed when handling collections. For each item smells of its constituent parts, and also indicates a decay which conservators try to prevent. Now as a PhD researcher of object disposals I’m struck that this ethereal component of objects can never been owned.
With the difficult museum legacy of mummified remains there are a several processes by which they can be removed from museum collections. Restitution, the return of something which has been lost or stolen, is a rare occurrence when the provenance of the object is clearly rooted in illegal practices. Such was the situation with the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent return of an Egyptian coffin acquired under a falsified provenance. By contrast, repatriation calls for objects to be returned to their homeland, most commonly when the question of acquisition was legal at that historical point in time, or when the provenance has become shrouded in the mists of time. Yet many items remain in museum collections despite the Egyptian Government’s requests for antiquities to be returned to their country of origin. The status of the ‘Rosetta Stone,’ currently in the British Museum, is such an ongoing ethical debate. The practice of curatorially-motivated disposal, often following a specialist collections review, is of limited practice for mummified remains given the complicated legal a