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Is it ethical to visit Egyptian Mummies?

The first time I saw an Egyptian mummy was in a museum. Painted gold, posed for eternal repose, it was glamourous, mysterious, and captivating. I’ve continued to seek them out around the world. This year, there’s a new mummy exhibition at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. But before I bought my ticket, I stopped to consider a new question: Is it ethical to visit Egyptian Mummies?

I have been lucky enough to visit Egypt itself, to wander the magnificent tombs that have been opened to the public, and see mummies in the Cairo museum. This is not realistic for all of the many, many citizens of the world who share my fascination with ancient Egypt – and who flock in record numbers to any exhibition where mummies are on display.

But if you follow museum news, it’s hard to miss conversations around returning African artifacts that were looted. This summer, activists attempted to seize and remove an African funeral pole from a Paris museum in protest to this type of colonial-era injustice.

Ancient Egyptian Mummy in the Louvre Museum
Ancient Egypt Gallery, Louvre Museum, Paris,

So what are the ethical considerations before you visit Egyptian mummies?

I decided to ask an expert.

Charlotte Parent is an archeological conservator based in Montreal. She graduated from Queen’s Master of Art Conservation program and has been in the field on archaeological projects in Abydos, Egypt. Charlotte was also the 2019-2020 Samuel H. Kress Conservation Fellow in the Organic Materials Lab at the Royal Ontario Museum. She recently discussed the ethics of caring for ancient Egyptian remains from a conservationist’s point of view in the webinar Your Mummies, Their Ancestors. (Watch it on YouTube.)

I asked Charlotte to walk me through some of the considerations for tourists wanting to visit Egyptian mummies.

An Interview with Archeological Conservator Charlotte Parent

Archeologist in Abydos Egypt
Charlotte in the field at Abydos in Egypt

It’s been almost 100 years since the Brit Howard Carver opened King Tut’s tomb and unleashed this mania for Egyptian mummies in the West. Our fascination hasn’t changed, but the ethics of removing artifacts from Africa have. Is there any kind of movement to return Egyptian mummies to Egypt?

No, there’s no widespread movement to have all mummies returned to Egypt. There are certainly some people asking for it, asking those questions, especially on social media. One interesting project to follow on Twitter is Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage – they share very good comics which explore those issues from an Egyptian perspective

I will say it’s different for royal mummies. For example, I don’t know if you know that there were the mummified remains of an ancient Egyptian man at the Niagara Falls Museum….

Yes, it made collector Bill Jamieson world famous!

Right. So that was actually Ramses I! And those remains were returned to Luxor. So when the human remains are those of a royal individual, then there’s definitely interest from the Egyptian government to get them back. But otherwise, no, not really — as far as I know.

“There are also racial issues to be considered”

So would you say for people who visit Egyptian mummies in museums outside of Egypt that there are no ethical consideration?

No, I think there definitely are. To me, the very core of ethical issues around how we deal with ancient Egyptian human remains is the colonial context in which a lot of mummies were excavated and displaced.

Mummies, along with ancient Egyptian artifacts, were unearthed and transported to the West both as a result of colonial power structures, but also as a way to strengthen them.

There are also racial issues to be considered: in the 19th and 20th centuries, Ancient Egyptian mummies were used in racist eugenics research by people like archaeologist Flinders Petrie, which sought to establish an evolutionary hierarchy of the races, with white people at the top and Black people at the bottom. Scientific racism, as it’s called.

Western scientists would sometimes claim that Ancient Egyptians were white rather than African, as a way to appropriate the grandeur of Egypt for the West, and to alienate modern Egyptians from their heritage. That artificial separation between Ancient and Modern Egypt continues to this day.

Ancient bodies were prized and collected in a context in which modern Egyptian bodies were not valued and were often abused, for example working in difficult conditions. In the history of collecting and studying mummies, colonial violence was enacted on ancient Egyptians but also on modern Egyptians.

I’d advise anyone visiting mummified human remains to look into both the ancient culture’s attitudes around death, but also into how the bodies ended up in museums. It’s worth asking ourselves where we stand and how we can uphold or challenge colonial attitudes in the way we relate to archaeological artifacts and human remains.

Coffin of Amenhotep 1 Egyptian mummy in the British Museum
Amenhotep I in the British Museum. Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin 

“Not only are they human remains, but they’re also sacred things meant to be shrouded in secrecy.”

What’s the difference between displaying the sarcophagus and displaying a mummy? Is showing the actual human remains worse?

I do think there is something inherently worse about displaying unwrapped mummies, where you can actually see the remains.

For one, it’s a dead person who didn’t want to be on display, but also, and maybe most importantly, through mummification, wrapping and being encased in the coffin, mummies were turned from dead bodies into sacred ancestors. So not only are they human remains, but they’re also sacred things meant to be shrouded in secrecy. Revealing them, and displaying them, violates all that spiritual power that they had for the ancient Egyptians.

I think there’s something to be said about respecting and taking seriously the culture of origins’ beliefs when it comes to death. It’s important to note that most of the ancient Egyptian objects that you see on display in museums comes from tombs. They’re all funerary artifacts. So to some degree, all of the ethical concerns that apply to the bodies themselves apply to most ancient Egyptian objects in museums.

You mentioned that royals have a special consideration. What are the issues around class in terms of displaying mummies for tourists?

I think it’s fair to say that historically, people who are royals, who are identifiable, have been treated better. For example, there is a mummy at the ROM whose name is Nakht, I believe he’s still on display. He was a weaver — just a “normal” person. He was autopsied in 1977. And by autopsy, I mean he was not only unwrapped, but he was also opened up to look at all his organs.

The thing is, by ‘77 we did have CT scans. Or we almost did: Djedmaatesankh, another ROM mummy, was scanned in 78. We definitely did have x-rays. So why did they feel it was appropriate go to that length of destructive intervention? Basically, what they explain in documents that I found last year was that because he was not an important person historically, destroying his body would not destroy an important artifact. It was even phrased like that on the label next to him when he was displayed back in the 90s. I don’t think this would have done to a pharaoh.

One of the reasons why I want to talk about this is because I’ve been thinking a lot more about ethical travelling. I think plenty of people think if we’re not staying at resorts, we are automatically “good” tourists. But I care deeply about animal welfare, for example, so I go out of my way to avoid attractions or tours that are exploiting or abusing animals for tourist dollars. Are there considerations like that for those who visit Egyptian mummies? Like, are there things to watch out for that say, “hey, this institution really is not the best…”

One thing that comes to mind is exhibitions that sensationalize the remains. For example, when they had the British Museum mummy show in Montreal last year, for Halloween they had an event where you could go and visit the human remains at night. And the publicity around it was kind of like, “Ooh, it’s creepy going around mummies in the dark.” And that just felt like it was building on the trope of mummy as this scary monster, rather than the mummy as ancestor or as sacred or as a dead body. So I think that’s wrong, and I wouldn’t advise going through those kinds of things.

Otherwise I would say, make sure you have a respectful attitude — just general decorum would be good. It’s a bit simplistic to think of it as like “visit them like you would your own grandparents or your own ancestors,” because our conception of death and of how we should relate to the dead varies from culture to culture and from person to person. And we’re so far removed from the ancient Egyptian, that it’s very hard to know what they would have wanted. But I think it can kind of help to think of it this way, just so that you make sure that you have a generally respectful attitude.

Unwrapping Ancient Egypt: the Shroud, the Secret and the Sacred by Christina Riggs

Scattered Finds: Archaeology, Egyptology, and Museums by Alice Stevenson

The Archaeology of Race: the Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie by Debbie Challis

Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums by Samuel L. Redman

Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I by Donald Malcolm Reid

The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in our Museums & why we need to talk about it by Alice Procter

Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic Institutions by Vicki Cassman, Nancy Odegaard, and Joseph Powell

The Mummy’s Curse: Mummymania in the English-Speaking World by Jasmine Day

Follow Charlotte on Instagram and Twitter.

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