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 and religious status of human remains.
What strikes me about any of these forms of disposal is the primary concern with the legal ownership of the physical object. Whether the value of the object is primarily its aesthetic beauty, cultural significance or financial value, the smell of the object is not considered. Smell is ethereal, and when linked to the religious practices of mummification and the after-life it arguably forms an essential part of the object. And yet it is impossible to capture, is of limited duration, and access is limited to those who are permitted to see an object outside of the display case setting. When considering the case for restitution or repatriation of mummified material from collections perhaps the profession could begin to consider this aspect, and the rights and significance for those who are currently unable to access it. It may prove to be an irrelevant matter, more an issue of philosophical thought than practical museum work, but as museums start to consider more the value of our collections and the role of decolonising practices the status of smell could be an important value to consider.
Jenny Durrant is a PhD researcher in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, funded by AHRC Midlands3Cities. Her research explores disposal, the