Some museums are ditching the term “mummy” to describe the preserved Ancient Egyptian bodies in their collections. According to a recent CNN report, three British museums have adopted the terms “mummified remains” and “mummified persons,” and several institutions in the United States told Hyperallergic that they are also updating their language in order to command more respect for the individuals that they display to the public.
Across the United Kingdom, the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle, London’s British Museum, and Edinburgh’s National Museums of Scotland have rewritten their display labels and online resources with the new language as it “can encourage visitors to think of the individual who once lived.” Jo Anderson, the assistant keeper of archaeology at the Great North Museum: Hancock, referenced the historical evidence of the UK’s disrespect and desecration of Ancient Egyptian bodies in a 2021 museum blog post clarifying the terms of the change in descriptive language.
According to the blog post, the museum’s famed body of an Ancient Egyptian woman known as Irtyru was brought to England and became the subject of a public “unwrapping party” in 1830 — one of the more grotesque impacts of the Victorian-era “Egyptomania” craze that succeeded the centuries-long European practice of consuming ground-up mummies to prevent and treat various illnesses. Sadly, the flagrant objectification of preserved Ancient Egyptians extended into the art world as well. From the 16th through 20th centuries, “Mummy Brown” was a largely popular shade of oil paint pigmented with pulverized remains looted from Egypt and sold across Europe.
Adam Goldwater, the museum’s manager, told CNN that visitor research yielded evidence that museum patrons “did not recognize that [Irtyru] was a real person,” prompting the institution to “display her more sensitively.”
The National Museums Scotland (NMS) has also updated its language. Its use of the term “mummified person” was first introduced during its 2017 exhibition The Tomb: Ancient Egyptian Burial and was implemented throughout the permanent Ancient Egypt Rediscovered gallery that opened in 2019. The British Museum still uses the word “mummy” across its galleries, but also adopted the term “mummified person” in new displays as well. A spokesperson for the British Museum did point out that there is no intention of phasing out the word “mummy” across the institution.
The change in language is happening across the pond as well. Four museums informed Hyperallergic that they’ve either already adopted the terminology in their displays and additional literature, or are in the process of reestablishing policies to include more sensitive language for the individuals in their funerary collections.
“We have had many internal discussions around adopting the term ‘mummified remains,’ or ‘mummified person’ as well as best practices around how to alert our visitors to the presence of mummified persons in our gallery space,” a Brooklyn Museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic, citing the decision to rename their Mummy Chamber, housing four mummified individuals, to the “Funerary Gallery” five years ago. (Separately, the institution has recently been identified on a ProPublica database for its possession of Native American remains that have yet to be identified and repatriated under NAGPRA.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan has over a dozen mummified individuals in their collections and uses the term “mummified remains” across their galleries as well, with a representative noting that the museum “seeks to convey care, dignity and respect throughout explanatory and contextual information.”
The University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute has 89 mummified remains in their collection, 13 of which are human. A spokesperson for the institute told Hyperallergic that while administrative and faculty discussions are taking place to establish policy on the terminology, gallery signage refers variously to “mummified remains,” “mummy of (individuals name),” and “mummified boy.” They also noted that there is a sign at the entrance of the Egyptian Gallery alerting visitors that they will be viewing human and animal remains.
Chicago’s Field Museum has one of the country’s largest collections of mummified remains with 23 human individuals in their possession. While the museum’s Africa and Egypt galleries are being revamped, a representative stated that they would “certainly consider a shift from “mummy” to “mummified remains” in referring to these individuals and their funerary context.”
But the notion that “mummified remains” is the more appropriate and humanizing term for preserved bodies is not widely accepted. Professor Salima Ikram, the unit head of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, has used the word “mummy” across multiple books, articles, and publications, and told Hyperallergic that she actually finds the term “mummified remains” to be “insulting and dehumanising,” and that several of her colleagues share her opinion.
“‘Remains’ suggests that the body is fragmentary (and to my mind, evokes to what one leaves on ones plate),” Ikram elaborated. “I think the problem is that one needs to educate people so that they realise that a mummy is indeed a human being (or other animal) that has gone through a complex process of transformation that the Egyptians believed was crucial for the person to stop being human and become divine so that the individual could live eternally.”
The ancient Egyptian process of mummification was not rooted in a preoccupation with death, but out of love of life and the desire to continue it after passing on. Priests worked as embalmers to carefully remove the organs, dry out the body, and wrap it carefully with hundreds of yards of linen while performing rituals to ensure that the deceased would maintain all their faculties in the afterlife. Mummies were kept with their belongings that the living believed they would need in the afterlife as well.
“I am saddened by this idea that name-changing will alter or enhance people’s understandings,” Ikram lamented. “Explanations and education are crucial, and indeed, the word mummy, at least here in Egypt, very specifically refers to a human being, albeit in a transformed state.”
In response to Ikram’s comments, the National Museum of Scotland told Hyperallergic that the adopted language has been woven into its educational resources and online information as well.
“Our interpretation addresses both ancient Egyptian beliefs about mummification and colonial-era collecting practices,” the NMS spokesperson stated.
“In our digital sessions for schools and in our schools workshop, children are encouraged to think of these individuals as real people who once had lives of their own and taught about what ancient Egyptians hoped to achieve through mummification.”