I first had the pleasure of discovering Dr Angela Stienne’s work early in 2021 when I was researching an article about mummies for Aquila magazine. She very graciously shared her knowledge about the ethical treatment of human remains in museums and challenged readers to think about the impact of studying and displaying the bodies of real people.
Not long after we spoke, she announced the publication of her first book on the subject and I’m very pleased to have been given the chance to read an advance copy of Mummified: The stories behind Egyptian mummies in museums.
‘Mummified’ isn’t a book directly about ancient Egypt and it doesn’t tell the story of how or why mummies were made. Instead, it addresses the European culture of possessing, displacing, destroying and consuming (yup!) them from the Middle Ages onwards.
Today countless numbers of Egyptian mummies and mummified body parts are held in museum storerooms in France and England. A handful more are on display in public galleries, but how often do we stop to ask how they came to be there and why we are so comfortable with human remains being displayed for our education and entertainment?
Stienne’s extensive career in museums and as an academic perfectly position her to ask these questions and more about the ethics of acquiring and displaying bodies.
Beginning with a chapter on the role of mummies as medicine and in medical collections, Dr. Stienne goes on to shed light on how mummies have been status symbols, souvenirs of war, objects of scientific research, theatrical performance pieces and tools of white supremacy. The book is filled with enlightening and thought-provoking information about the history of the human body in museums. It addresses the public unwrapping of mummies for entertainment and uncovers the truly horrifying use of those bodies to support theories of racism and pseudo-sciences.
I don’t usually review books for grown-ups on here but so many of the ideas that Dr. Stienne writes about should be at the very centre of how we talk to our children about our relationship with the past. It isn’t unusual to have had a childhood fascination with the mummies that we saw in museums or read about in books, but why do we feel so entitled to look at them? Does it matter that these are lifeless bodies that have no capacity to consent to how we use them? Why do we push the dehumanisation to the backs of our minds and forget to question why humanity can so easily be stripped away from the remains of real people who had very different expectations for their afterlives?
Dr. Stienne cleverly forces us to confront our own relationship with these ancient artefacts and the role of governments, museums and private collectors in their displacement and display. She also looks to the future and asks what best ethical practices can be applied to the conservation and engagement with existing collections. This is a fascinating, empathetic and challenging book that will open your eyes to a subject that feels familiar and yet gives us so much more to think about. Mummified: The stories behind Egyptian mummies in museums is public history at its very best!
Mummified: The stories behind Egyptian mummies in museums is published by Manchester University Press who kindly sent me a copy for review.
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