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  • Caitlin Smits

Mummies in the art museum

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 I spent some time in with this coffin and cartonnage (ca. 945-712BCE) in the museum's 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 of a 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, as it involves Kantian philosophy. Thankfully Kant is mildly more digestible than Heidegger, but his theories on art are still complex. Art as form, Kant argues, that art should not have a concept, but be merely judged on its formal qualities. That is to say that the colours, shape, execution, and material are what make a work of art, art, rather than the intent of the maker. This cartonnage lacks none of these features. The surface is abundant in colour, a variety of narratives are presented, and a beautiful sense of natural form.

Though this idea could most definitely be fleshed out and argued further, I believe that it is safe to say that this cartonnage is a work of art. The debate of whether or not this belongs in an art museum is another story; as is the nature of how this object arrived in the museum’s collection in the first place.

Now, I would be curious as to how someone more well versed in art theory and theory of aesthetics would argue this (particularly from a non-Eurocentric point of view); and how the definition and arguments would change with the presence of human remains. But I think all of this is to say that mummies are complex. Is it strange that there are mummies—and by extension human remains—in an art museum? Do they belong there?

I genuinely do not believe that this is a simple yes or no question.


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. Caitlin is also the Artist in Residence for Mummy Stories.

a.n—The museum made no indication if the remains still remained within the cartonnage.




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