Thursday, May 15, 2008

More re the covering of the Manchester mummies

Thanks to Bob Partridge, Editor of Ancient Egypt magazine for his permission to publish his email and a copy of his letter, which was sent yesterday to a wide distribution list.

Dear fellow ancient Egypt enthusuiasts,

This email is for those who either may have heard, or perhaps have not heard about the recent decision by the Manchester Museum (in the UK) to COMPLETELY cover its unwrapped mummies.

I am contacting as many people as I can because the issue is one which, in my opinion, is much wider than a local issue, for the Manchester Museum collection is known world-wide and the work on its mummies and the research it pioneered is being followed by museums around the world to this day.

The museum as you may know will have its Egyptian galleries re-displayed in a year or so and has has started a consultation process with interested people and the public to plan for this. One of the subjects being discussed is the display of mummies, and one of the senior managers in the museum (but not, I understand the Egptologists) has already announced that he does not like mummies on display, in advance of any response/results from the consultation process.

The museum has asked for "comments" about the covering, which, hopefully, will be taken into consideration, and, if the comments made so far are anything to go by, should result in the museum's decision being reversed (?).

The museum has a web site where you can see a picture of Asru, covered up (but it could be a pile of Leggo bricks inside the coffin now). The Museum has asked for comments from the public about the display of mummies and their covering.

PLEASE visit the site if you can and leave your own comments, whatever your own views, for or against.

I have written a letter to the University/Museum, on behalf of the Manchester Ancient Egypt Society, which was signed by most of the people at yesterday's meeting.

You might like to print this off and send a copy yourself, or write your own letter. Please read this letter anyway, as sets out a bit of background information which might be of use.

PLEASE do respond as soon as you can, for the Manchester Collection is one we all know well and the University, is to my mind at least, making itself a laughing stock in the world of Egyptology.

We can but hope that te decision taken to cover the mummies will be reversed, and the Museum will take heed of our comments. If not it will be a sad time for Egyptology in Manchester

The Address for all the people at the University, including Professor Rosalie David is

The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester. M13 9PL, with the appropriate name and Department inserted first.

Thank you..

Bob Partridge
Editor "Ancient Egypt" magazine
Chairman Manchester Ancient Egypt Society

Wording of letter follows:


Professor Alan Gilbert.
The President and Vice-Chancellor, the University of Manchester.

Copies to:
Nick Merriman, Director, Manchester Museum, University of Manchester
Piotr Bienkowski, Deputy Director, Manchester Museum
Dr. Karen Exell, Curator Egypt and the Sudan, Manchester Museum
Professor Rosalie David, The KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology at the University of Manchester.

Covering the Mummies in the Manchester Museum.

Dear Professor Gilbert,

This letter is written at the request of members of the Manchester Ancient Egypt Society (MAES), following our monthly meeting yesterday.

You will know that the Egyptian collection in Manchester is one of the most important in the country and has world-wide recognition. The displays have, since the museum first opened, have done exactly what we would expect a University Museum to do, to inform and educate the public, enthusiasts and experts alike.

The mummies are of course only a part of a major collection, but they too have achieved their own national and international recognition following the scientific study of them over many years and the publication of the results (two such books being published only recently).

We know that the display of the Egyptian collection is to be renewed in the coming years and that a special “consultation process” which will last a year is under way to get the opinion of the various groups of people interested in the collection and also the general public too. The second meeting was held in April and was attended by several MAES members. The matter of the display of mummies was one which was discussed and which we understand will be discussed at future meetings, before the findings can be collated, analysed and acted upon.

One of the ideas raised and discussed there was the putting up of a notice at the entrance to the galleries, in effect warning people that they would encounter dead bodies. We see this has actually been implemented in the museum already, although it could be argued that in the 21st Century there can be hardly anyone visiting an Egyptian collection who would be surprised to find mummies there.

We realise that the display of mummies is indeed a sensitive matter. In UK museums, only a handful are actually displayed, unwrapped, but the important thing is that unwrapped mummies ARE on display. In Egypt several museums display unwrapped mummies, including the most famous kings and queens of ancient Egypt in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. In the Tomb of Tutankhamun, the king’s mummy was recently put on public display for the first time.

It is clear that The Deputy Director of the Manchester Museum has strong and already publicised views about the mummies and does not want them displayed.

We are somewhat shocked and amazed to find that the three of the Manchester mummies have now all been completely covered (two unwrapped mummies and one wrapped, but clearly showing the presence of male genitalia) in advance of any ‘results’ from the public consultation exercise.

We find this decision and action absolutely incomprehensible and would make the following two major observations:-

1. How can the museum cover these mummies “in line with its Human Remains Policy” when in the very same building a much publicised exhibition has recently opened which displays the uncovered body of ‘Lindow Man’? Lindow man died a violent death and it could be argued that this could be more upsetting to some visitors than the mummies.

2. According to the Museums Human Remains policy, human skeletons (or even body parts) are treated no differently from mummies, yet why are the mounted skeletons of the Egyptian “Two brothers” not treated the same way? They are still on full display.

The Museum’s policy is both astounding to us and also inconsistent.

It is clear from visiting the museum that visitors are not happy with this (and whilst not all of them will record their opinions on the comments board it was interesting to see that the great majority of the views expressed were in favour of the mummies being uncovered).

We are concerned that a truly world class museum will rapidly lose any academic credibility worldwide by the actions taken. Its Human Remains policy seems to differ from other museums (and we would have expected there to be a consistent and national policy on this). The Science Museum in Manchester recently attracted a huge number of people with its Body World exhibition, which did educate and inform people in a very real and positive way.

Non-Egyptologists at the museum may not be aware that literally hardly a week goes by when a museum somewhere in the world announces that it has studied its mummy, put it on display and made a reconstruction of its lifetime appearance. Manchester Museum was the first in the world to do this and the rest of the world is still following the example.

The Manchester Mummies have always been, and hopefully will in the future, be a main attraction at the museum. Their presence and display, is directly responsible for the huge interest in ancient Egypt. One only has to see how busy the Egyptian galleries in the museum are, to appreciate this is still the case and the unwrapped mummies play a key part in the “visitor experience”. The unwrapped child mummy shows the care, attention and love with which the dead were treated and reminds visitors in a real and poignant way that infant mortality rates were high. Asru was carefully buried as befitted her status as a Chantress of Amun and we have learnt much about her life from the study of her mummy. It is now pointless having the reconstructed head on display when the body is covered. The mummies encourage visitors think and react to the past and makes ancient Egypt “real” to people in a way that is just not possible with other objects or indeed other ancient cultures and more recent periods of history.

If the museum does not display any mummies, or even photographs of them (which also I gather is against the Human Remains policy) then the public’s “knowledge” of the appearance of mummies, is likely to be the bandage- dripping, vengeful monsters portrayed in films, and the Museum should show that the reality is very different.

It would seem that political correctness is getting in the way of good museum displays, and their important work of education and informing visitors. We would urge the Museum to

1. Review its Human Remains policy with regards to the display of ancient Egyptian remains and perhaps encourage all UK museums to work to one mutually agreed policy and to implement the policy consistently.

2. Uncover the mummies immediately and await the final results of the public consultation before any major decision on their display is taken.

It is clear from the response we have seen at the consultation meetings and from comments left in the museum and on the web site, that the great majority want the mummies on display and uncovered. We hope that the Museum will respond positively to these opinions and that its final decision has not already been made.

When I was in the museum on Sunday, there were some very disappointed visitors there, one in particular. I spoke to a nine year old boy who had visited the museum previously with his school and who had been talking about the display and the mummies in particular ever since. He finally persuaded his parents, his brother and sister and his grandparents to visit the museum with him and he was really upset to find that the mummies were covered, Asru in particular. He left a note saying “Please uncover the mummies”. I think that says it all.

Yours sincerely,
Bob Partridge
Chairman, The Manchester Ancient Egypt Society.

And the undersigned 36 members of the MAES who attended our meeting in 12th May….on the following pages

(Note: as this letter is being copied to many people, the original signatures are being sent to Professor Gilbert, with copies attached for all the other recipients).

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