Encountering Corpses

(Warning: this article includes images of human remains)

One of the most popular galleries in any museum is Ancient Egypt, and in that gallery the biggest attraction is often a mummy. Manchester Museum is no exception; it is renowned for its extensive Egyptology collection, and especially its mummies. But where does this fascination come from?

Howard Carter’s famous discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 made headlines worldwide, inspiring generations of would-be archaeologists, but also popularising Egyptology beyond the academic –ownership of the discipline was no longer exclusive to the university professor. This is something that continues today, the internet is proliferated with theories of curses and conspiracies, to vampires and aliens. However this public interest seems to have been spawned long before Carter   famously saw “wonderful things”. By the mid nineteenth century the animated corpse had already become a unit of gothic fictional currency, a role for which the Egyptian mummy was perfectly suited!

The display of human remains is a regularly debated subject in museum ethics, and whatever policy line an institution takes, it is unlikely to please everyone. The ‘Egyptian Worlds’ gallery at Manchester Museum, installed in 2012 as part of ‘Ancient Worlds’, displays 3 mummies, two Roman Period ‘Portrait Mummies’, who remain wrapped, and Asru, an elite lady from the 25th-26th Dynasty, who was already unwrapped when she came to the Museum in 1825. Asru is one of the focal points of the main gallery. She lies not on a shelf, objectified among pots and amulets, but in a free standing glass case, in her inner coffin, covered from collar bone to ankle in the same manner as the royal mummies at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. She is positioned away from the visitor’s direct eye-line, to allow the choice of whether or not to look.

Asru

Responses to a ‘museum mummy’ typically include curiosity, revulsion, pity, sadness, wonder… But perhaps most often they receive the reaction “Is it real?”

Although sometimes there is a temptation to tell the visitor, “No, that’s just one of the archaeology students on placement…” in a museum where one of the star attractions is a cast of a T-Rex, the mummy’s reality is perhaps a legitimate question. In all seriousness, however, this search for authenticity is at least partly responsible for the way the mummies have become fictionalised and romanticised.

In the 1800s it was typical for mummies to be given ‘mock contexts’, which Dominic Montserrat referred to as ‘biographisation’, filling in the gaps in historical knowledge with fictions and fantasies of their own invention; especially the eroticised and orientalised notion of unwrapping, or ‘undressing’ ancient Egyptian princesses. Asru came to Manchester as a ‘Temple Chantress’, a fictionalisation which lay unquestioned until very recently.

The mummy occupies a space somewhere between a living person and a corpse, and the attributes ascribed to this transitional body reflect the narratives and fantasies of the cultures which display them. As early as the fourth century BC, Greek historian Herodotus, already portrayed the Egyptian mummy as both sexualised and commodified, it was an exotic other that emphasised the cultural division between the Egyptians and the Romans. In England, by early Victorian times, with the gradual process of museumification, the mummy became objectified, though the status—at once human and artefact—remained problematic.

As the nineteenth century advanced, so did the academic interest in Egypt. As hieroglyphs became more readily translatable, mummies became “sociable bodies with recoverable histories” (Montserrat). The discovery of the ‘Faiyum Portrait Mummies’ and their perceived lifelike sensuality stimulated a desire for reconstruction; this also provided the potential for fictionalisation. It has even been alleged that Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ was inspired by the beautiful young men displayed in Petrie’s exhibition of mummy portraits in 1888 in London.

Portrait Mummy

In this way the mummy became at once decontextualized and sexualised. The naked, often fragmented body allowed the objectified mummy to become a museum spectacle, where the viewer might become voyeur. The mummy has been, and continues to be seen as something theatrical, with the unwrapping at the centre of the performance, be that the 19th century ‘unrollings’ or the virtual undressing of the 21st century CT scan.

Today we are in an age and society that is further removed from death than ever before. Death and burial have become institutionalised, and the preserve of professionals rather than families or communities. Consequently a museum’s Egyptian mummy is often the first dead body we see. However, as visitors we bring to this encounter our own mythologies and fictions; whether this is Scooby Doo, Lara Croft or Anne Rice, there is an ‘un-reality’ of their context in popular culture, and the mummy is already transformed within the imagination. Therefore at the point of confrontation, the response is often emotional rather than aesthetic.

Manchester Museum has been at the forefront of scientific research in the field of Egyptology since 1908 when Margaret Murray undertook one of the first interdisciplinary studies, with Khnum-Nakht famously unwrapped in a public lecture theatre, turning the discipline from a curiosity in a gentleman’s parlour into an academic study. The Manchester Mummy Project in 1975 saw Professor Rosalie David OBE make further advances in the field establishing the ‘Manchester Method’, following which the University of Manchester’s KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology has now been long established as a leading institution for continuing interdisciplinary research. And the museum’s current curator Ancient Egypt and Sudan, Dr Campbell Price and his team have scanned all of Manchester’s mummies at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, revealing new information and pathologies.

Khnum-Nakht

There seems to be a general consensus that mummies should be treated with respect, but who defines respect? What’s the answer? Should we ‘humanise’ our mummies? Should we reconstruct their faces and explore their lives? Should we look inside and analyse their pathologies? Or is that just creating another fiction? Perhaps there is no longer a line that separates fact from fiction…

Michelle Scott

Follow the Manchester Musem Visitor Team: @VisitMM on Twitter, and VisitMM on Vine

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16 thoughts on “Encountering Corpses

  1. This is a good introductory summary of the topic, but it surprises me that such discussions so often make no reference to my seminal work on Egyptian mummies in popular culture and museums, “The Mummy’s Curse: Mummymania in the English-speaking World” (Routledge 2006). (There are some passages in the above blog that resemble things I said in that book, so if it WAS a reference, it should be cited properly, as is Montserrat’s work.) Some of the questions posed in the blog are the very ones to which I have proposed answers in my book, and in my recently published essay “Thinking Makes it So: Reflextions on the Ethics of Displaying Egyptian Mummies”, . Few academics have addressed mummymania and its ethical implications for museum visitors’ reactions to mummies, so I would recommend my book and essay to interested readers as further reading.

    1. Hi Jasmine, thanks for reading. I wrote this post as a commentary on the displays at Manchester Museum, from my vantage in the visitor team here at the museum. The content was partly driven by the discussions during and following the IHSSR symposium in March earlier this year (and the spoken word is infrequently well referenced!). Many thanks for the link to your work, which I look forward too reading with interest, as the display of human remains is an issue which many museums will continue to be faced with. Thanks again, Michelle

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