'Everyone loves mummies' is a sentence I heard many times in my years working on the ethics of human remains in museums. But is that so?
This summer marks exactly one decade that I have spent exploring the relationship between museums, human remains and ethics, and especially focusing on the collection, retention, study, display and reception of Egyptian mummified bodies in French and British museums. It is a research that took me from the historic hidden corridors of the Musée du Louvre in Paris, to the British Museum before opening hours, from workshops at Leicester Museum and Art Gallery, to talks at the World Museum in Liverpool, from a BA in Egyptology at University College London, to a PhD in Museum Studies at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, from a postdoctoral fellowship at the Science Museum London exploring its collection of human remains, to a participatory project called Mummy Stories (that's where you are now!) collecting stories around the world, to a book on Egyptian mummified bodies in museums... in 10 years exactly. It's been a lot - and I have learned a lot!
Mostly, I have learned that change is slow. Most museums still treat Egyptian mummified bodies differently from other displaced human remains, and conversations on ethics, colonialism, displacement and restitution are still centred on 'other' bodies.
The Egyptian mummy: the least problematic human remains?
In 2016, Mummy Stories was created as a platform to share contemporary research on human remains in museums, and to give individuals a voice in the conversation on the retention, study, and display of human remains in museums.
In five years, international debates have evolved, the conversation has been brought to the media thanks to exceptional community efforts, and restitutions, repatriations, and removal from display have become the heart of a very important conversation. And yet, there is still a lot to do internationally to forster conversations that explore, challenge, and debate the very presence of human remains in museums around the world; especially human remains that have been displaced and displayed in countries where they do not belong.
While some tremendous efforts have led to removal of ancient Egyptian human remains from museums (hello, Pitt Rivers Museum!) and more work is being done I am sure behind the scenes, Egyptian mummies still occupy a liminal space in most museums: body or object? A little controversial, but perhaps liked enough to ignore it? Surely not as bad as other stolen items? The conversation is stagnant.
Between 2020 and 2021, I was a consultant for two museums with collections of displaced bodies: both museums were part of a project on museum restitution; both had collections related to African heritage; both had Egyptian mummified bodies or body parts or other connected secret and sacred items; both elected, after much consulting, to exclude those from the final, public conversation. A conversation about displaced, potentially looted, African bodies and heritage.
It is slightly disheartening that after so much work over a decade to engage the public (via storytelling, workshops, public engagement, lectures, pop ups, debates, videos, social media content, etc.) on the topic of human remains and how they have arrived in museums, why they are here, and what we can do next... it seems that the museum as an institution is still ignoring the connundrum that is the Egyptian mummified body: a body so transformed by time, cultural practices, popular culture, and the museum itself, that it has evaded conversations on ethics, restitutions and displacement, and yet, lives at the crossroad of violent displacement, political manipulations, cultural appropriation. A displaced body.
It was time to take the workshops and Mummy Stories to the next level... a book, Mummified, The stories behind Egyptian mummies in museums (Manchester University Press, June 2022), of which the two following short reflections are taken from: on Egypt in Africa and on restitution.
The Egyptian mummy: the least problematic human remains in museums?
Let's think together...
You are in a museum’s indoor court. The view is impressive, dazzling – dizzying, even. Where to start? On your right is the great Egyptian gallery with its colossal sculptures.
The Egyptian mummies are upstairs.
This is the British Museum, a museum that has dedicated two floors to the great ancient Egyptian civilisation, separated clearly from anything to do with the rest of the continent it is located on. But this could be the Louvre too, where the ancient Egyptian galleries cover two very large floors, separated not only from African art, but also from Islamic and Coptic art.
In the museum world, Ancient Egypt exists in a vacuum.
And more often than not, ancient Egyptian artefacts are displayed next to the Greek and Roman sections, far, far away from the production of its continent or even its current inhabitants. In the twenty-first century, the ancient Egyptian civilisation is still idolised by museums, institutions that seem to be concerned that affiliation with the rest of Africa might tarnish the image of this civilisation.
Two floors for ancient Egypt, a basement for Africa.
This is the contemporary museum worldview.
Categorisation in museums is a silent set of hierarchies and divisions, and nothing is more revealing of this than the categorisation of objects according to supposed geographical distinctions. The origins of the ancient Egyptians is a topic that is still current: from Afrocentrism, to continuous DNA testing of dead bodies (an invasive process, let us not forget) to understand the ethnic origins of the ancient Egyptians, to heated online debates, to museum categorisation and the erasure of historical narratives in museums. There is no doubt that the origins of the ancient Egyptians, and their relation to the modern Egyptians, is at the heart of any conversation on Egyptian mummies.
When bodies are removed from display, or when displays change and do not fit expectations, visitors often have strong reactions – and so do some curators and academics. In the autumn of 2019, I saw this first-hand. I was a guest lecturer at a conference on human remains in Turin, Italy, where I presented the idea that we should view Egyptian mummies as displaced people. (...)
‘But, if we are to think of Egyptian mummies as displaced people, does this mean we have to give them back?’, said a man in the audience, bemused by my suggestion.
A world without visible Egyptian mummies on display. There were a lot of strong feelings in his question, and also quite a few misconceptions about who refugees and displaced people are, as well as what they want. But the overwhelming reaction was this: entitlement. I responded that, of course, if Egyptian mummies are the subject of calls for repatriation, then they should be sent back. They are humans who have been displaced to foreign countries, and they should be able to return home. (...)
The idea that it is our right, as westerners, as museum visitors, to see the human remains of others is engrained in our consciousness. When human remains have been removed from display – or even when the idea that they should not be there in the first place is brought up – this feeling of entitlement, of our right to see these bodies, often comes into full focus. We have been brought up with the spectacle of these bodies on our TV screens, in comics and films, in documentaries, and in museums. They have been commodified, and commercialised to the point where they are non-human cultural objects to most of us. It is uncomfortable to be faced with the stark reality that we have been using ancient dead people for our enjoyment and learning, without asking questions.
Today the public discussion in museums centres on removal and restitution. This is a very relevant and pressing question when it comes to extra-European human remains. In 2020, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford announced that it was removing all human remains from display. While the headlines focused on the removal of tsantsas (known to the public as shrunken heads), Egyptian mummies were removed too. In total, 120 bodies and body parts were taken to storage.
The decision led to intense conversations on social media, fuelled by this sense of entitlement that so many share. Many visitors complained that it was their favourite display in the museum, and they were upset that this imagined right had been taken away from them.
To feel outraged that looted or displaced objects are taken away from you when they are removed from display, but not especially bothered that they have been taken away from their own communities: that’s entitlement.
It is time to take the Egyptian mummified body to the centre of our conversations and actions.
The Egyptian mummy, the most visited body in museums, is perhaps the most problematic human remains in museum practice.