Will You Be My Mummy: Dead Bodies in Museums Raise Ethical Dilemmas

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition on ancient Egypt raises disturbing questions about the ethics of displaying dead bodies.

In the center of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recently opened exhibit Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom lies a dead body. Inside a narrow open wooden coffin, a mummy rests on its left side. As we gaze upon the wrapped body and painted mask with recognizable facial features, a feeling of unease descends. Here’s a body exhumed from its grave for our education and pleasure. But is that right?

The body belongs to Khnumhotep, an estate manager (or steward) for the pharaoh, who died about 4,000 years ago. The beauty and intricacy of the coffin and mummy indicate the extent to which the Egyptians prepared for death and made the preparations a central part of their religious and cultural practice. The ancient Egyptians took evident care to preserve the body; perhaps that is the reason it feels so unsettling to witness. Preparing for the afterlife clearly meant a lot to these ancients, which raises an ethical dilemma for museums about balancing the public interest against respect for the deceased.

Mummy and mask of Khnumhotep
Mummy and mask of Khnumhotep (Credit: source)

Under Wraps: The Process of Mummification

Preparing for death required a lifetime of effort. Chief among the preparations was mummification, a process that took 70 days and 600 pounds of natron, a naturally occurring sea salt. Mummification removed as much water from the body as possible, preserving the remaining tissue like salting preserves beef.

The result was a very dried out, but recognizable, body. This allowed the deceased’s soul (called the ba and represented as a human-headed bird), to leave the body each day and visit relatives still living. At night, the ba returned to the body. To ensure the ba found the correct body, a mask representing the deceased covered the mummified head.

The initial step in mummification removed the internal organs to dry and preserve the body both inside and out. First to go was the brain, which was not preserved because Egyptians confused the function of the brain with the heart, which they believed to be the center of wisdom, emotion and personality. A hooked instrument inserted into the 

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