Mummified: the stories behind Egyptian mummies in museums by Angela Stienne

Posted by Chris Hart - Thursday, 12 May 2022


This extract is taken from the Prologue

Perhaps you have seen Egyptian mummies in museums too. You may have felt curiosity, fear, concern or nothing at all. You may have returned to see them, being drawn by these human bodies on display. You may feel torn by the viewing of the dead and the ways these remains are displayed, or you may feel deeply emotional about the connections to death and the afterlife that the bodies facilitate. Perhaps, as for me when I was young, the viewing of an Egyptian mummy stopped you in your tracks: you were meeting an ancient Egyptian, someone who lived and breathed in ancient times. You were making a connection with the past. You may have thought during your museum visits about the big questions that the viewing of these mummified bodies raises – questions that museum professionals often call ethics – or perhaps you didn’t: you just walked past them, and maybe had a curious look. It is very possible that you are not much of a museum visitor at all, and your interactions with Egyptian mummies have occurred through books, documentaries or movies. Either way, your initial emotional responses are valid. They are conditioned, in part, by your own feelings about life and death, but also by what you know about Egyptian mummies, whether you view them as a visitor or as a professional working in fields related to archaeology, museums or even forensics.

Your emotions are also conditioned by your experience of the museum. Museums can be places of enjoyment and learning for some, while for others they are places of trauma – physical manifestations of a history of violence. If your history, the history of your community and that of your ancestors, is linked to violence, trauma, colonisation and displacement, then you will know why the museum as an institution can be a difficult place to navigate and even to access. But if, as for me, the museum has been for you first and foremost a place of enjoyment and curious wandering, it is entirely possible that what you know about museums and Egyptian mummies is not the whole truth – and that is because museums have been complicit in telling only some stories about themselves and the objects they contain. This book and its many stories will bring to light some aspects of the great unlearning of the museum – and of Egyptology as a discipline – that is necessary if we are fully to grasp the implications of our interactions with Egyptian mummies, but I cannot tell you how to feel about these bodies displayed in glass cases. There is no right or wrong way to visit a museum, but there are ways to have more informed museum visits.

The Egyptian mummy has been the subject of many books, and yet few have invited you – the visitor, the researcher, the curator or simply the inquisitive reader – to become an active museum visitor, and an agent of change. Very few have questioned why the Egyptian mummy is in museums around the world today. In this book, I share stories that attempt to counter the usual mummy narratives: they are stories of things that go wrong, stories of displacement, stories of practices that are a little odd, stories of studies that are outright racist, but also stories about individuals who were fascinated with mummies, stories about technology and its potential, and stories about where we go from here and what we can do next. In choosing which stories to tell, I have tried to cover a diversity of topics to help you think about this vast subject. The stories take place in France and England, because that is where I have pursued my research but also where I have led workshops and engaged with the public. But it is not an entirely personal choice. France and England were also the two main countries to battle for the political, cultural and intellectual control of ancient and modern Egypt, and both countries have left these histories unchallenged for some time. I am going to invite you to question the bodies and artefacts that are inhabiting museums, and the narratives attached to them, wherever you are.

This book was written during two worldwide paradigm shifts that have put the body, the dying and the ‘other’ at the forefront of conversations. The first was an international call for decolonisation and restitution that, though it already existed, was heightened by the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the publication of important books about museums that reached global markets and put the behind-the-scenes museum conversations in the spotlight. The second was a global pandemic that forced people to think about, witness and experience death – a pandemic that is still ongoing as I write. The viewing of Egyptian mummies in European museums is very much embedded in these changing conversations about experiences and traumas that are linked to the living, the dying and the rituals of death.

Mummified: The stories behind Egyptian mummies in museums by Angela Stienne

‘Who would have thought that Egyptian mummies are alive and well all around us? Angela Stienne’s book helps us to see the ancient mummy in the brown paint of gallery paintings, in anatomy lectures, even in modern discussions of race and ethnicity. This brilliantly written book proves that the mummy has reawakened within our own social spaces as a material link between past and present. A must read.’
Kara Cooney, Professor of Ancient Egyptian Art & Architecture, University of California Los Angele

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