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.

journey and face final judgment before they were granted access. When successful, enough provisions were required to provide food and drink for their spirit to live forever.

Private Ritual, Public Space

But there’s something unsettling about these items. Viewing them closely feels simultaneously titillating and disrespectful. Egyptian mummies retain the physicality of a living human. The exhibition of mummies enables visitors to come face-to-face with the inhabitants of ancient Egypt, forging a personal relationship with the past. Khnumhotep, for instance, is someone’s relative and, while anyone who knew him has been dead for thousands of years, his descendants may still live in Egypt today.

How would we feel if we knew the gravesites of our forefathers were dug up and their coffins and bones on display? There’s always an outcry when a graveyard is threatened by development, including an incident just this month in Baltimore. So why is it distasteful to dig up a modern graveyard but not an ancient one?

Museums have been grappling with just this issue and configuring their interpretative materials to recognize the individuality of a mummy. For instance, the Met now lists “human remains” as one of the materials on display. This is a welcome change from the disrespectful way Americans treated mummies in the past. For instance, up to the early 20th century, mummies were ground into powder and sold as pharmaceutical remedies for a host of ailments including poisoning, incontinence and migraines. They were used as a popular paint for artists (“mummy brown”), and, during the Civil War, fashioned into paper when linen strips from imported mummies substituted for the shortage of domestic linen.

What, If Anything, Should be Done

The debate over how to display human remains is certain to continue well beyond the Met’s exhibit, which runs through January 24. Also certain to continue is our fascination with mummies and what they signify about ancient Egypt’s views on life and death.

The Egyptians prepared their tombs for eternity, taking into account the inevitability of the living having no connection to the deceased. The fact that they believed painted images possessed magical abilities to replace the actions of living descendants says a great deal about the high regard they had for the power of art. So perhaps an art museum is an appropriate resting place for Khnumhotep. After all, the Met states its mission as presenting “works of art across all times and cultures in order to connect people to creativity, knowledge, and ideas.”

So when you visit the Met and see Khnumhotep, remember that this mummy might well have been someone’s daddy.


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