THE ETHICS OF EXPERIENCING THE EGYPTIAN MUMMY
by Elise Etrheim
During the summer of 1999, the Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum purchased a collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts from a small museum-of-wonders located near Niagara Falls. Among the assemblage of 145 pieces was a mummy of particular interest: a mummy suspected to be the missing remains of a prominent Ancient Egyptian pharaoh—Rameses I. The circumstantial evidence was convincing and inspiring, and, after confident identification, by visual analysis and scans, the royal mummy traveled home to its origins in now modern-day Egypt, before which it was the centerpiece of cocktail parties and the feature of numerous articles.
For centuries, ancient remains—including Ancient Egyptian mummies—have caught the curiosity and attention of Western civilization. From the initial invasion of Ancient Egypt by Alexander the Great of Macedon, Western culture has appropriated and subjugated Ancient Egyptian customs. Since the late 18th century, Ancient Egyptians have been a source of wonder for the Western individual. Before modern restrictions and policies, Egypt was exploited for its mummies by the Western traveler, who was able to purchase, without limit, from Egyptian vendors. At home, these individuals would host invasive unwrapping parties, while others would partake in the pseudo-medical consumption of the preserved figures.
These exploitative and sometimes illegal actions were not the resolution which the Ancient Egyptians hoped for in the enactment of their funerary practices. Instead, the Ancient Egyptians practiced mummification to maintain a spiritual link between the realm of the living and that of the dead, allowing the ancestor spirits of those passed to communicate with the living and maintain a social existence. These bodies, their wrappings, and their associated objects, sealed within the coffin and tomb, were intended to remain unseen by the human eye after burial. Now, Ancient Egyptian funerary artifacts and mummies are subject to invasive study far from their final resting places within their burial chambers in Egypt. Mummified flesh is harvested for DNA and run through medical scans, all before the eyes of the modern man. These studies provide significant information regarding political, social, and religious organization along with an understanding of the medical landscape of these ancient eras. Yet, these intrusions require a compromise of these Ancient Egyptian wishes for their buried ancestors. These artifactual remains then remain within glass displays to be observed by the contemporary audience, who now approach with the expectations of witnessing the gruesome reality of the Ancient Egyptian mummy by CT scans, X-rays, bare flesh, or some combination of the three.
So, for years, not only has the Western mind been desensitized to the humanity imbued within the Ancient Egyptian mummy, but modern experiences in museums inhibit an ethical questioning of the treatment of Ancient Egyptian mummies. Although the study of these preserved remains offers significant insight into the medical and social history of ancient civilizations, institutions must establish explicit boundaries and actions to protect the integrity and humanity of the mummified bodies. Not only must we begin to consider what limits we should place in the invasive studies and display of these mummies, but we must also recontextualize our arguments to benefit the Ancient Egyptian viewpoint. There are still numerous mummies on display globally, including within our own Michael C. Carlos Museum, and we must begin taking strides to re-introduce the humanity and sacredness that years of disrespect drained from their existence in our modern world.