February 1, 2023

Opinion: The real problem with ‘mummies’

4 min read

Editor’s note: Jason Colavito (@JasonColavito) is a writer and cultural critic based in upstate New York. His writing has appeared in Esquire, The New Republic, Slate, and elsewhere. He is the author of several books including “Symbols of the Pyramids: Myths and Misconceptions about Ancient Egypt.The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion On CNN


Mummies evoke unusual emotions because they hover on an uncomfortable line between living and dead, human and object.

Jason Colavito

“I don’t know if you’ve seen that mummy,” former President Bill Clinton once quipped joke About a 500-year-old mummified Peruvian girl nicknamed Juanita. “But you know, if I were a single man, I might ask this mummy. It’s a good looking mummy.”

Objection to mummies has long been a concern, although rarely occurs. A major problem is the tendency to treat mummies as commodities, something to be used for industry or entertainment.

In the past few years, museums have begun to change the way they talk about mummies, replacing the term “mummy” with “mummified person”, “mummified remains” or other descriptors of human remains. is the way to treat them with more dignity and respect.

The matter came to light this week when a British tabloid Accused A large number of museums of going to “wake up” by changing their language. such as the British Museum noted in a statement to CNN.The change is not a complete ban on the word “mummy”, which is still used in museum galleries.

Nevertheless, A quarrel of online headlines Put the changes as restrictions. Since every attempt at sensibility on “Mother” is fodder for the culture war, the conversation quickly devolves into an argument about “wokeness” rather than focusing on the real issue: how we should talk, and should we talk about human bodies. should be exhibited.

The display of human bodies or body parts has a long history. Sometimes it was a sign of respect. TheirFor example, treated the mummified bodies of their significant others as if they were alive, dressing them and offering them food.

The Catholic Church has. Full cathedrals with the bodies and parts of the body of the saints, which they deem holy relics suitable for public viewing.

Other times the display is deliberately dehumanizing. Many rulers have raised the heads of enemies, and even in the early modern period Western countries left the rotting corpses of executed criminals on public display as a warning and show of power.

In English, the word “mummy” is used to mean a preserved human body. It is about 400 years old.Borrowed from the Latin version of an Arabic word.

But from the beginning the word was intended to create a distance between the living and the dead, to turn the dead into objects.

Before it came to mean a whole corpse, “mummy” was first used to describe the oil and other preservatives used to embalm Egyptian corpses.

Oh Live trade From the 15th century, thousands of mummies were exported from Egypt to Europe, where they were used to make everything from medicine to paint to fertilizer. Many people mistakenly believed that these substances had special powers when eaten from a dead body.

A merchant is on record as supplying bodies for this mummy trade. think “How can Christians, with such fine mouths, eat the dead bodies of men.” The answer is that they didn’t really think of mummies as human.

Our language, reflecting Christian ideals of the immortal soul, has traditionally recognized at least some degree of distinction between man and body. After all, when we cremate a body, we don’t talk about the ashes as a “person’s burial experience.”

But what does it mean to think of the body as synonymous with man, as opposed to thinking of the body as a vessel for the soul?

Perhaps one of the reasons why this slight change in language has generated so much interest in describing the mummy is that it implicitly rejects the religious view that a person’s essence resides in the soul and instead suggests Makes us just bones and bones.

Another reason is less ethereal. Many of the human remains found in Western museums, be they skeletons or mummies, arrived there because of the legacy of imperialism and colonialism. Many of the bodies on display are black, brown and indigenous, or so ancient as to appear culturally different from modern populations. They did not choose to be there.

So exposure to the deadness of other cultures is an expression of racial and cultural power dynamics, and our language reflects that. They are not “us”. Many would refer to the preserved body of a local ruler as a “mummy”. But the body on display in Moscow is usually referred to as Vladimir Lenin, not the “mummy of the Russian leader.”

Museums, universities, and other public institutions in the United States Still the warehouse More than 110,000 Native American dead bodies The opposition Accomplishes any attempt to repatriate remains, often framed in terms of a culture war. Only the British Museum holds it in the UK. Over 6,000 human remains. The British Museum says that visitors “expect to see human remains as an element of our museum exhibits.”

But should we?

Making some cosmetic changes to the signage to recognize the dead as people is a good start.

But real change will come when we honor the dead by removing them from our museums and leaving them to rest as they, their descendants and their cultures wished.

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