The British Museum in London, the National Museums of Scotland and the Great North Museum: Hancock have decided to change when they use the term “mummy” as part of a broader re-examination of how exhibits are described, labeled, and presented to the public. Instead, they will use “mummified remains of” or “mummified person”, to describe the Egyptian artifacts whenever possible.
“The word ‘mummy’ is not incorrect, but it is dehumanizing, whereas using the term ‘mummified person’ encourages our visitors to think of the individual,” a spokeswoman for National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh told the Daily Mail, which first reported the shift.
However, a spokesperson from The British Museum in London told ARTnews that the terms ‘mummy’ and ‘mummified remains of…’ are used across current displays and exhibitions. “The Museum has not banned the word ‘mummy’ and there are no plans for it to be phased out.”
During the past decade, the British Museum’s research has focused on how ancient Egyptian individuals lived and how they were prepared for the afterlife. This research has also been reflected in displays and exhibitions where, in some circumstances, the term “mummified remains of…” is used and includes the name of the person who has mummified when it is known.
The shift in language to describe exhibits of these major Egyptian artifacts also follows an ongoing reexamination of colonialism in the United Kingdom, and the horrific way the mummified remains were treated in the past.
In 2021, Great North Museum: Hancock curator Jo Anderson wrote a detailed blog post explaining how the institution took a serious look at how it treated, displayed, and interpreted the mummified remains of an ancient woman dubbed Irtyru, including the murky story of her provenance.
The museum identified several problematic examples of what has been “Egyptomania”, such as the obsession with “unwrapping parties” of ancient mummified people held in the private homes of the elite and then moved to larger public venues.
Anderson described the different ways Irtyru’s mummified remains were desecrated, including the unwrapping of her bandages by three surgeons in front of a ticketed audience, the application of shellac, and other “appalling” changes made for her public display.
“A large bolt and ring were attached through the cranium to enable her to be hung upright,” she wrote. “At the same time, a large metal staple was inserted into Irtyru’s spine, which secured her to the baseboards of the coffin beneath.”