Naked as the day you died

So… Manchester Museum has covered up it’s mummies. Director Nick Merriman has said that due to visitor complaints, they are now to be covered with cotton shrouds. The archaeologists and staff in the egyptology and archaeology departments (and many others) are very upset at this.

At first I was confused. This was the first headline I saw about the story:
‘Fury as museum bosses cover up naked Egyptian mummies to protect ‘sensitivities’ of visitors’
My initial thought was something to the effect of ‘stupid puritans even hate dead naked people.’ However, reading between the lines of this rather biased first article, I suddenly realized I’d stumbled upon an issue I was very familiar with- the repatiration of human remains.
Working at the archaeological site of a Native American village for many years, I was well versed in NAGPRA (Native American Graves Repatriation Act) and I admit that when I first came to England, and saw human remains on display- probably these very mummies in fact, because I first lived in Manchester- I was very shocked. Not because they were naked, but I had been schooled in the idea that putting human remains on view was entirely disrespectful and innapropriate.
I think that this article from the Guardian gives a more balanced view.
Native American bodies- skeletons, etc- used to be the centre of many American museum exhibitions, and I often received phone calls from elderly museum goers who recalled viewing them on display at our sister museum downtown. They wanted to know where the ‘dead Indians’ had gone and how dissapointed they were to not be able to show their grandchildren. I would swallow and politely inform them that this was not appropriate any more and that the bodies had most likely been returned to their descendants and reburied.
So… what do I think about this? Just because something has always been done doesn’t mean it’s right. If there are some descendents of the mummies- indigenous people of Egypt, etc- who protest them being on show then I say they should be taken off display and returned. This freaks a lot of archaeologists out because they say that they’ll lose their collections and chance for scientific study. Well even though I love archaeology, I can whole heartedly admit that it is a product of colonialism and was mainly insitited to reinforce its hegemony through it’s ‘discoveries’- to make indigenous peoples an other, regulat them to the past, and take away the rights of their descendents. Well, that’s its worst side. At it’s best, it teaches us important lessons about the past and connects us to it.
I’ve pretty much gotten it into my head that England/Europe is ahead of America in many ways (fashion, gay marriage, health care, etc) but in this case I’m really surprised that so many people are being so old school and raging against the machine. Mummise rank right up there with dinosaurs, in attracting families and others to gawk at museum collections. I’d think that museums would want to try to find a more meaningful way to attract and engage their audiences. After working in museums for over seven years, I don’t think I’m being too niave about this.

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