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On Display

July 4, 2021

I stood to gaze at the bones of a young child, who died of brittle bone disease some 5,000 years ago, exhumed in Egypt sometime in the 19th century. My young children nudged me to read the caption, and I hesitated, wondering: is it morally, ethically acceptable to display human remains in museum exhibits? Put on display in the same vein as a coin, a chair or another inanimate object? 

The ‘mummy galleries’ at the British Museum attract ‘more visitors per year than any other area of the Museum’s public space’. I studied archaeological science at university- including human skeletal studies, i.e., ageing and sexing bones etc- and I hadn’t quite considered the matter ethically until last week. Perhaps with my own mortality closer at hand and looking at this child, not much older than my own. 

The Egyptian mummies at the British Museum are a familiar classic, which I’ve enjoyed in my own childhood, and enthusiastically took my children to visit after school. And last week, an insight landed on me like a bucket of warm water; these displays were once living and breathing human beings, not too different to you and me. This was someone’s child, and the others were someone’s mother, grandmother… 

Even the humblest of archaeological enthusiast would be familiar with the process of mummification. Essentially, loved ones cared for their dead in a very particular way, took exceptional care, precision and cost to secure their life in another world, beyond this one. This is not the ending they had envisioned. The voyeuristic stance I took, looking at these people in cases, left me with immense guilt. This is objectification, Orientalisation and colonisation, all proudly exhibited.

I wrote elsewhere on my belief in public collections of a private (here), and the complex issue of funding. I believe, regardless of the colonial powers that acquired the British Museum collections, these are best cared for and safest here. This applies to archaeological heritage from my own country of origin; the Babylonian and Assyrian reliefs, the Balawat gates etc. With much disagreement in my own family, I believe our country is too political volatile, constantly threatened by religious (and non-religious) fanatics, under skilled, under funded and unable (right now) to care for these world heritage objects. More, these glorious objects will not be viewed by anywhere near as many people as the ones here and in other privileged countries. 

However, this thought is specific to human remains from whatever age, from whatever culture, humans who once lived, who had children, and mothers who grieved for them and who died and were desperately missed by loved ones, or even if they went unnoticed, forgotten. 

If I tragically lose my child, I would not want them put on show for others to gaze at, and luckily, I don’t imagine anyone would be interested in such a display. And today’s present is tomorrow’s past, a foreign country to excavate and escape to.

From → Community, Random

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