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  • Angela Stienne

A Year of Mummy Stories

In January 2017, Mummy Stories was launched as a participatory project inviting individuals to share their stories of encounter with Egyptian mummified bodies in museums. The origin of this project was a simple observation: there was little opportunity for the public to share their opinion and feelings at the viewing of the human remains of ancient Egypt in museums around the world. The idea that “Everyone loves mummies” seemed too simplistic to reflect the public’s opinion. In addition, I wanted to offer a platform where curators, researchers and the public had a voice — with a valid opinion to be heard.

The stories were collected and shared through social media and on the website all year round. Through 2017, Mummy Stories collected over thirty stories from individuals around the world: France, the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Iceland, Canada, the United States, Egypt, China and Thailand.

The project

This is the proposal that was presented on the website:

Mummy Stories is a participatory project inviting individuals to share their stories of engagements with Egyptian mummies: from studying human remains, to reading cartoons on mummies, engaging with ethical questions, and visiting local museums holding Egyptian human remains, individuals have different stories of encounters with Egyptian mummies. The multiplicity of stories, dependent on personal interest, geography, and many other factors, brings to light the multiplicity of definition of what the mummy means to us.

The stories

The first story was by Lonneke Delpeut who looked at the Leiden mummy boy in the Netherlands, a mummy that has been taken off display due to ethical concerns: Lonneke made an important point in noting that the children visiting the museum wanted to identify with the mummy they were encountering. Dr Melanie Pitkin, the curator of ‘Egyptian Mummies: Exploring Ancient Lives’ in Sydney discussed her humbling experience working with human remains and putting them in contact with the public. Next up was Stacey Anne Bagdi who introduced the mummified bodies she worked with at Birmingham Museum, and how their identities are being revealed through new technologies. Chloe Ward talked about a urban legend, the Whitby mummy, and how the surprising histories of the acquisition of mummies have inspired many tales. Jenny Murphy looked at Egyptian mummies through her own studies of human remains, and how mummies can be differentiated from other human remains, especially skeletons, a point that often translates in museums. Gilbey Lund discussed mummies at New Walk Museum in Leicester, and the presence of a peculiar plaster cast mummy. The topic of the ethics of displaying human remains was brought up by Aisha Almisnad Almohannadi who discussed mummies at the British Museum. The next story was a fantastic tale of discovery by Chris Elliott who found a piece of mummy fabric in a publication at the British Library, a souvenir from a practice of mummy unwrapping. Chen Lu brought an important perspective from China, noting the absence of permanent collections of Egyptian mummies there. Similarly, Noma Kutalad noted that it took a journey of discovery from movies to comics before she saw a real mummified body in the United Kingdom. Bloom, a nine year old child brought an important perspective: children do like the figure of the mummy in fiction, but the material reality of a mummy can be terrifying to them. Pia Edqvist talked respect and care through her work as a conservator of human remains at the Petrie Museum. Simon, a volunteer at the same museum, discussed a different type of mummy: a burial pot and a skeleton from the Badarian period at the Petrie Museum. Zahi Hawass, a former minister of antiquities in Egypt, sent his contribution discussing his authentication of a mummy at Cairo Museum. Guy Smith thought about his changing vision and pathos for Egyptian mummies as he learnt more about their history and who they are, demonstrating that narratives can impact perceptions. Next, Gudrun D. Whitehead talked about mummies, shrunken heads and other human remains at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Our next contribution was from Kelly Shand on the Peabody mummy and her own story of encounter as a child. The next story came from Egypt, with Sherin Motawea sharing her emotional encounter with her 'handsome prince', a mummy for whom she designed an exhibition in Cairo. SJ Wolfe shared her lifelong research on Egyptian mummies in the United States, producing tremendous work cataloging every entry of mummified bodies in the country. Henry C. Pelgrift took us on a tour of the newly-opened mummy room at Liverpool Museum, the latest of a series of redevelopment of Egyptian collections in the UK. Alice Baddeley reminded us through her story that movies can be the point of origin for an interest in mummies. Solene Klein shared her emotional encounter with the mummy of Rameses II at Cairo Museum. Marie Shwartzmann gave us an insight into visitor reception of mummy displays through the example of the Musée du Louvre where she worked for many years. Blaire Moskowitz took us to the Metropolitan Museum of Art mummy room, where the mummy attracts many crowds, but didn't attract her at first. The role of movies in sparking interest in mummies was reminded to us by Armonchat Sermcheep who visited mummies in museums after seeing them in movies. Joanna Munholland shared her inquest into the bone of an Egyptian person that was found in her museum collection in Canada. Elena Settimini took us to Turin and shared her feelings at the viewing of ancient individuals there. Our next story was by Alessio Francesco Palmieri-Marinoni on the presence of Egyptian mummies in stage productions, especially opera. Our final story was by Dr Campbell Price, curator of Egypt at the Manchester Museum on his encounters with Egyptian mummies

30+ stories, 30+ very different encounters, and many viewpoints: there is no one story of encounter in museums.

Results and limitations

This project was born out of hope that individuals would share their mummy stories, but also, and importantly, their feelings and opinions, in a safe environment. In particular, I had hoped that individuals would not shy away from sharing opinions that go against current display in museums — I was very pleased to see an incredible variety of opinion and stories. It was refreshing to hear stories from individuals who disliked the prospect of seeing mummies in museums, and questioned their presence in museums. These are opinions that need to be heard. It was fascinating to receive so many stories of emotional encounters— the emotions that can be brought up by the seeing of a human are important factors, that are rarely taken into account by museums. The combination of stories from curators, visitors, researchers is both revealing of the variety of opinions, but also of the fruitfulness of working together and sharing voices.

It wasn't easy to collect stories, and especially from individuals who identified as 'non-specialists'. When I asked people around me to share their stories who were not curators or Egyptologists, the first reaction was: 'oh but I know nothing about mummies!' These very individuals produced some of the best stories. This is important, because these very people were surprised that their opinion was valued enough to feature in the project — it is important that we, as researchers and curators, change this, so we can hear more from individuals involved with the viewing of bodies in a number of ways. I hope to see more curators share stories, to receive stories from archaeologists, and to involve more countries in the future.

In the early stage of the project, I received an email asking me why I focused on Egyptian mummified bodies and excluded other human remains. This was a fair question. My aim, as I hope this project demonstrated, was to reintroduce the Egyptian mummy in conversations, and especially in conversations on ethics, display and narratives. Going forward in 2018, we are talking about those 'other' human remains. I strongly believe that storytelling is the medium to share openly our views and opinions, and instigate real change in the museum world — I hope you will join me in this new chapter.


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