Mummies: what’s sacred? Private?

imagesSeems museums have dodged flak for placing dead folks on display.

And the current iteration of mummy-memorabilia is no exception.

“Mummies of the World,” now playing in Portland, anticipates the controversy associated with putting dead bodies on display.

The exhibit and printed literature include a prominent ethics statement that human remains should be “treated with respect and dignity.”

But who gets to define respect and dignity? Who decides?

At what moment is our gaze as museum-goers voyeuristic?

I’m asking because some of the mummies on display have their private parts revealed while others are covered.

For example, a mummy from South America labeled Tattoo Woman sits in a crouched stance under glass, naked, except for a shawl around her shoulders.

She wasn’t wrapped in linen like the Egyptian mummies. Rather, she was preserved “naturally” by dry desert air.

Her exposed skin reveals tattoo markings on her face and breasts.

Of all the mummies I encountered on display, she feels the most exposed. The most intimate.

Perhaps it’s her hair, still intact, or her posture. She seems sentient.

And I feel like an uninvited guest gazing at her bare chest.

And then there’s the mummy with the penis.

The Egyptian man, whose linen wrappings have been removed, lived more than two thousand years ago and today rests naked under glass as part of the mummies tour.

Like the arms and legs, his penis was wrapped in linen and, now preserved, points forward, saluting his nude toes.

More modest are the mummified remains of a baron and baroness whose bodies were preserved in a crypt until they were discovered in 1806 by family members in Sommersdorf, Germany.

The baron, on display naked except for his boots, perished in the 1600s, probably from an infection.

Baron and baroness, unlike the Egyptian and South American bodies, lay with their private parts covered with a cloth.

One reporter noted that the loin covering was requested by family members–a sign of respect.

The family is listed in the credits as a sponsor of the exhibition.

And I can’t help but wonder who speaks for the mummies whose relatives are unable to negotiate for their respect.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in framing, Native Science, science, science communication and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Mummies: what’s sacred? Private?

  1. What a very good point. I have felt the same year for many year, but never quite got around to articulating this…thanks so much for sharing this. And even if they were covered…would it still be respectful? Should it still go unacknowledged that perhaps this is a completely disrespectful practice?


  2. You ask an important question, one I struggle with quite often. Appreciate hearing from you.


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