I would like to draw your attention to recent developments
concerning the Egyptology collection at Manchester Museum
in the UK.
Following a conference held at Manchester Museum/Manchester
University in conjunction with Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD,
an organisation representing British Pagans and their concerns vis
a vis ancient BRITISH human remains) in November 2006 entitled
Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: Philosophy and Practice,
the management of the museum seem to have been inspired/persuaded
to make at least some of the Egyptian mummies on display in the
Manchester collection less visible/accessible to the visiting public.
News items appearing on the BBC website on 15.02.08 entitled
"Doubt over museum displays" and related videos reported that
museum managers, concerned about critical comments made by
the Bishop of Manchester about the arrival of a totally unrelated
exhibition (Gunther von Hagen's Body Worlds 4) in the city, were
considering removing all human remains from display. However, at
the time a museum spokesperson was quoted saying that "We are
starting a public consultation to find out what people think about the
display of human remains ..." . Even though the great majority of
Manchester consultees appear to have strongly favoured the
continued display of the Manchester mummies, the museum
management have now completely covered at least some of
these mummies with shrouds, so that no parts of their bodies, not
even their faces, can be seen by museum visitors. This was
done BEFORE the consultation process has been officially
completed, which has left many Mancunians who took part and
expected additional meetings and events to aid decision-making
feeling very disappointed and frustrated with the process.
I attach a link to the museum's blog site, where the majority of
comments to date appear to be critical of the museum's decision.
Personally I am extremely concerned about such developments,
for a number of reasons:
1) It appears that HAD, an organisation representing British
Pagans, appears to have been able to exert a disproportionate
amount of influence over the fate of ancient Egyptian mummies
in a world-famous Egyptology collection. In my opinion, this
cannot be justified.
2) In my opinion the fact that a mummy is on display does NOT
automatically signify disrespect for the culture it represents. On
the contrary, mummies in sensitive modern museum displays
are not shown to make score sensationalist points but to
enhance our understanding of an ancient culture with a rich
spiritual life and great sophistication.
3) I am concerned that the role of museums in the presevering
of heritage and educating the public may be jeopardised by such
misguided decisions in the long run, whatever the intention of the
decision makers. The management of Manchester Museum have
a responsibility towards this world class collection and its credibility
as a resource of both academic study and popular education, which
may be compromised by a loss of credibility arising from this decision.
4) In my opinion, covering mummies or removing them from display
IN ITSELF does noting to improve our respect for the ancient culture.
Respect can only arise from a greater understanding and appreciation,
which is not likely to be fostered by covering things up and hiding
them from view. The covering up of some of the Manchester Mummies
strikes me as a misguided reaction to pressure exerted by articulate
minorities whose views must be balanced against other, wider and
long-term considerations, and I fear that the decision represents the
retreat of a reasoned, rational approach to heritage in favour of a
return to something akin to the intellectual dark ages.
Make sure you go to the linked blog and go over some of the comments. Quite the kettle of worms, this subject. The most salient point made by both Brigit and, in the comments, Jasmine Day, is the definition of "respect". This seems to me the key, since one person's respect is another person's outrage. The notion of what constitutes "respect for the dead" isn't in any way a cultural universal (though I suppose most people could probably agree on a few no-no's), so to argue that X disposition of remains is somehow universally "disrespectful" is an exercise in futility. Brigit states this clearly: In my opinion the fact that a mummy is on display does NOT automatically signify disrespect for the culture it represents.
Is it the culture we're protecting from disrepect, or the individual dead person? Who decides then? The museum-going public? The "descendents" of the dead? Anthropologists?