Dehumanising the Ancestors?
Whilst there is a strong focus on research into material culture left behind by past civilisations, the treatment of the human remains of these cultures is a delicate issue. Debates abound regarding the curation, interpretation and display of human remains, especially regarding ethics and ownership, with the end result that human remains occupy a rather precarious position in the hierarchy of museum displays. Whilst examination of all forms of mortuary culture and human remains offer a valuable insight into the culture of ancient civilisations, not all kinds of human remains are equal in the eyes of the museum, and especially when viewed by museum audiences. The more unusual and outlandish – essentially, dehumanised – the form that human remains take, the more popular they are as an exhibit for visitors to museums, and consequently there is more incentive for museums to display these curios. There is a marked difference between the treatments of naturally occurring human remains such as skeletons and bodies mummified by the environment, and that of unusual forms like the mummies of ancient Egypt, or books bound in human skin. Focussing especially on Egyptian mummies, as these are the most widespread and accessible examples of this phenomenon, this paper will explore the variety of non-traditional forms of human remains present in museums to examine why these are so popular, and to demonstrate the impact and resultant effects this fascination with the unusual has on this particular area of museum collections.