The Ethics of Mummies and Museums

I recently visited the museum again, this time concentrating on the Ancient Egypt exhibit . It featured two mummies: one who was displayed with his original sarcophagus and a mummy of indeterminate age and gender from an earlier era when bodies mummified accidentally/naturally from being buried in the sand in a dry, hot climate. There was something odd about standing next to the remains of two people who were once someone’s child, spouse, sibling, parent, friend even though everyone who knew and loved them has been dead for thousands of years.

I have certain ethical hesitations when it comes to displaying human remains from ancient cultures for the entertainment of others in general. Strangely enough, I don’t have the same feeling of ick about the cadavers used in medical schools or even the Bodyworlds exhibit that visited Toronto last year. (As an aside, the latter was one of the most educational experiences of my adult life. I’d never realized how fragile our systems are, how easily a pregnancy, a bone, a heart, a blood vessel can break down.)

We can learn a lot about a society – their diet, general health, burial rituals, afterlife beliefs, etc –  through the archeological study of their grave sites and remains, of course. It would be a real shame to lose the knowledge of past civilizations that we have gained or will gain in future expeditions and I completely understand why archeologists dig up and study these things.

I also know that some Native American tribes are very upset  with museums who display the bones of people who were unearthed on land that traditionally belonged to certain groups. It isn’t always possible to pinpoint the racial (much less tribal) identity of a skeleton, of course.  Erring on the side of caution is an admirable trait and while I don’t have a problem with the general scientific study of mummies, skeletons or other human remains I don’t think it should ever be done against the will of that individuals probable descendants or ethnic group. A corpse can’t give consent, of course, and if there is such a thing as an eternal soul I doubt that they are that concerned with what happens to their shells after death. But those left behind do care in certain cases, even if the individual in question has been dead for a few hundred generations.

Is the human body sacred? I don’t know what I think about that term, but I would argue that human remains should be respected for the people they once contained and for their cultural beliefs about death, burial and the afterlife (assuming that we know enough about their culture to make an educated guess as to whether they would find the exhumation of a burial site to be ethically objectionable. If the culture is not known well enough for us to figure this out, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with learning everything we can about them.) There is a balance between respecting a culture and the person-who-was and the advancement of scientific knowledge that we have yet to reach. In some cases maybe there cannot be a compromise: either we excavate a newly-discovered ancient burial ground or we don’t.

I don’t even know exactly what I’d change about the presentation of the Egyptian mummies themselves to make it feel more ethical. A cultural shift in which we acknowledged the lives that these individuals lived seems more appropriate. But you can’t exactly legislate culture and dimmer lights or a sign asking people to be quiet in that area probably wouldn’t be effective. If nothing else, I’d like to see human remains only displayed for limited amounts of time . Whether that is measured in weeks or months or years, I don’t think any human body parts should be indefinitely under the public eye. At some point they should be laid to rest again, if only in a quiet storehouse of scientific discoveries somewhere.

And so I end this post just as conflicted as ever. Is it always unethical to display human remains? I don’t think so, no. But our current standards don’t seem to be entirely appropriate either. There is a line between education and entertainment. The former seems like an appropriate use of human remains; the latter sticks in my craw. But I don’t quite know what to do with displays that are of both educational and entertainment value.



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3 Responses to The Ethics of Mummies and Museums

  1. Twyseschoch

    I loved the human body exhibit – the plasticized bodies. But it felt pretty weird to see all that. I think the oddest display was the pregnant women. Those women all died while pregnant, their babies died with them, and now they are plasticized for our viewing. I understand your conflicted thoughts.

    • Anonymous

      The Bodyworlds and Drew and I visited didn’t have any pregnant women. I’ve read that there are a few different exhibits traveling around and that even each one doesn’t necessarily always have the same display all of the time.

      Ours did have a room of miscarried fetuses/babies. It was utterly fascinating from a human development point of view and sad when I thought about what their families must have experienced.

      I still find it weird that Bodyworks didn’t bother me. Maybe it’s because their families gave consent (presumably)?

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