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  • Caitlin Smits

Mummies and the Ritual of the Museum

As an art historian and an artist, I do not get many opportunities to discuss mummies. Nor have I spent much time intensively researching them. But, my most recent encounter made my mind reel over how people interact with museums and museum objects…

There is something fascinating about the ceremony of mummification. The ritual and formality of the whole process is incredibly fascinating to me. In school I was always intrigued by various burial rituals, and the material culture that goes along with it.

Now there’s another ritual that some mummies are a part of.

The museum.

One of my favourite essays in museum theory is by Carol Duncan. Titled “The Art Museum as Ritual”, Duncan describes the way in which many visitors interact with the sacred space of the museum, and how they have historically been compared to ancient ceremonial monuments, palaces, and temples.

Duncan also describes the user of ritual sites, some take a prescribed route, while others are more knowledgeable and prepared to “respond to its symbolic cues”.[1]

Sometimes, I find myself more fascinated by those partaking in the ritual of the museum, than the objects within it.

On a sunny September Sunday in Paris, I decided to treat myself to a visit to the Louvre. There were some galleries I did not make it to when I was in France in June, and I decided it was time to see more of this absurd museum.

One of the departments that I had missed was the antiquities department. I had heard much of the collection, it was about time that I saw some of it myself.

As I wove through the galleries I found myself listening in on what other participants were saying. Whether they were discussing the gallery, the museum, or the objects within it.

“Even the Greeks and the Romans thought that Egypt was a superior civilization…”

“où est la galerie …”

“This thing creeps me out…”

“[he] must have been the William Howard Taft of Ancient Egypt to fit into that.”

The most interesting part of this ritual, is that upon entering the room that houses the “Momie recouverte de ses “cartonnages”” there was silence. The chatter and noise from the previous galleries disappeared into the background. Almost as if the presence of a physical body (and not just empty Sarcophagi) created some tension in the room.

However, the “Momie recouverte de ses “cartonnages”” has to be one of the most stunning mummies I have encountered. The detail in the wrappings is incredibly delicate and sophisticated, nothing like I had ever seen before.

I almost wonder if the beauty in the wrappings was the cause of silence, or the gravitas of a physical body.

I almost hope for it to be the latter.


[1] Carol Duncan, “The Art Museum as Ritual”, The Art Bulletin, March 1993 Vol. LXXVII No. I, p. 11

Caitlin Smits recently completed a History of Art MA, at the University of Leicester. She is interested in collections history, provenance, and the museum experience


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