When I first walked into the mummies’ room at New Walk Museum in Leicester, I did not immediately realise the peculiarity of what I was contemplating. Despite the fact that I had visited many museums in my life, I had rarely encountered Egyptian collections. In my imagination, mummies were iconic elements of the Ancient Egyptian world, and if someone asked me to picture Ancient Egypt, the truth would be very cliché. Pyramids, hieroglyphs, ornamented sarcophagi and mummies would be amongst the first images to form in my mind. I was therefore not surprised to see them in a museum which displays a collection of Egyptian artifacts. As I walked by the four mummies laying side by side in the tiny dark room, impressed by their state of preservation, amazed by the sheer beauty of each sarcophagus, I missed, revealingly, the humane question posed by that scene.
It struck me when I visited the exhibit a second time, in company of Angela, who animated a guided tour of the Egyptian gallery. At the end of the tour, pointing at the mummies, she invited us to ponder: do we think they are objects, or as people? While my mind immediately thought “people!”, my feelings kept me from answering because somehow it would have felt as an imposture. My first perception of these mummies, my emotions around them, even my fondness of the setting in which they were displayed, were not sufficiently accordant with an honest claim that I thought of them as people, which they obviously are. Not only my own perception suddenly felt inadequate, but the very fact that mummies are displayed in museums was troubling. Indeed, since they are people, even dead, how can they be here presented on a shelf, behind a glass, for visitors to see and closely examine, exactly like the objects in the other rooms? Do we walk around them comporting ourselves with the same deference we would maintain in a cemetery? And if not, why is that so?
As a student of history, I am often confronted by people asking me “what is the purpose of history?” It is too easy to overlook why history seems a little bit fanciful in the daily lives of many people. In fact, the public role of history, the social benefit of looking at our past, exists not so much scientifically as it does philosophically. By looking at the past, what we really discover is ourselves. Hindsight is like a very outspoken mirror. One of my favourites ‘popular historians’ once said that “History is a marvellous antidote to the hubris of the present.” For me who is not an Egyptologist, that is exactly what seeing a mummy and considering its humanity feels like. It shakes my trust in a world which believes, as Jefferson said, that it ‘belongs to the livings, not to the dead’. The presence of these mummies in this museum, far away from the land where they chose to be buried, acts as a humble reminder of the shortness of my own vision, the limits of my beliefs, the helplessness of these things for the dead and therefore the responsibility of the livings. They invite us to ask ourselves how much respect and care we are currently extending to those we regard as foreign for any reason, because inevitably, as life and history continues, we too will find ourselves at the disposal of others.
Lucas Mathis recently graduated with a Master of Research in History from the University of Leicester and is presently a prospective PhD candidate. He is interested in the history of political ideas and is currently writing about the meaning of democracy in the United States in the time of Woodrow Wilson.