Sunday, 20 February 2011

The curse of the vanishing mummies

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A surprisingly objective and untrendy article in the Independent reports the surprising news that quietly over the last few years more and more museums in Britian are taking mummies from display or half closing sarcophagi. Why? – out of respect for the dead. The impetus for this comes entirely from the museum curators, not from the public or the press.

‘In the past 40 years, the foundational principles of museum institutions have undergone critical scrutiny and this has led to a crisis of purpose. Museums were formed in the time of the Enlightenment (the 18th century), when the pursuit of knowledge was considered paramount. While there has always been some hostility towards the principles of this period a number of intellectual trends since the late 1960s have consolidated this critical view.
‘Through the intellectual trends of postmodernism, cultural theory and post-colonial theory, the traditional justifications of the museum have been questioned to the point of crisis. The pursuit of knowledge has come to be seen not as universal or objective but as an expression of European prejudice. Not everyone in the sector supports these ideas of course, but for a while the dissenters have been pushed aside by an influential group of activists.
‘The question of how human remains are researched and displayed has become a lightning rod for a wider debate over the purpose of the museum. I have spoken to many campaigners who see the issue of repatriating or repositioning human remains – once considered scientific objects – as a way to signal a change of purpose for the institution. Removing them is a way of showing research is no longer a priority.
‘One of them explained that campaigning for repatriation and the removal of human remains from display was more important to him than his area of trained expertise. He told me: "I am an archaeologist. My specialism is the Persian period. A big find has just happened and I should go, I am the expert in this area, but I would much rather stay and do this. This is more pressing and important for me now."
‘This senior curator, and others like him, are taking it upon themselves to remove and hide the exhibits. In doing so they are also dismantling from within the purpose of the museum as an institution. The remit of research, learning from past peoples and the display important.'


This odd unsensational story disquiets me very much. Museums are about colonialism of course (like tourism). Although I do not think I remember ever seeing a mummy except in films. I rush to the tomb paintings in the British Museum from Hellenistic Greece but that’s different.

I saw St Teresa of Abila's preserved brown thumb in Abila - should that be removed from view or venerated?

I saw mummified bodies in one of the two cathedrals in Dublin very well preserved. What harm? And a certain number of mummified and embalmed saints in my time. I was too late for Dmitrov's body which had been burnt a month before I visited Sofia in 1990. We are very often nowadays in logical dilemmas as enlightenment values tie us up in knots. Oddly enough unlike the curators who believe in enlightenment values (as did the men who discovered the mummies in the first place) I am not sure whether I do. They contain the seeds of their own destruction as we see each day nowadays. I believe in freedom and the rule of law but this is the fruit of the English Common Law rather than the Enlightenment or the Whigs.

The politician's body turned to clay
Will make a clout to keep the draught away.
I am not fond of draughts but yet I doubt
If I could bring myself to touch that clout.

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