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.