The Morals and Ethics of Keeping a Mummy

(Photo Courtesy: Tyler Rak ’24).
Izzie Corley, Contributing Writer

The College of Wooster owns a mummy. We own a dead body as property. I was ruminating on this fact, and especially whether I thought this fact was okay, when I attended the lecture on the background of our mummy ownership, and saw her on display myself. 

Using human remains as an academic or museum fixture is risky. It’s something that needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis. The provenance, the effect it has for the people who have rightful claim to it (or if there is anyone who still does) and whether it’s actually useful all come into play when considering the morality of the matter. In the case of the 2,300-year-old remains of the Egyptian middle class woman probably named Ta-Irty-Bai, these all check out.

We do know where the mummy comes from. She was looted from a tomb near Akhmim, Egypt, and sold to a Presbyterian missionary in the late 1800s, costing him a whole eight dollars. He gifted her to the College, where she has remained since. The fact that she only cost eight dollars wasn’t the most interesting thing I learned at the context lecture. Rather, it’s that at some point in time, the College asked the Egyptian government if they wanted the mummy back. They said no. Keep in mind that the Egyptian government is not known for being coy about what they do want returned (just ask the British museum). Given that there is no large group of people who still practice the same cultural burial traditions that Ta-Irty-Bai did, this means that the group with the most rightful authority to claim the mummy wasn’t interested. This sets her apart from the many Native American burial goods owned by museums, whose tribes still exist and practice the same cultures the ancient Indigenous people did. In plenty of cases, they do want it all back.

The one person we ought to be asking, who we cannot, is Ta-Irty-Bai herself. One point that museum director Dr. Wardle stressed at the lecture was that she personally wanted to humanize the mummy. I do like this approach, because it helps us break away the layers of abstraction that obscure the fact we’re talking about a dead body. However, if we are to humanize the mummy, then why don’t we treat her like a person who would have had personal opinions? We have no way of asking her, “are you okay with your body being used in a way that is contrary to your cultural practices in the pursuit of academic and intellectual gains?” and expect an answer. She certainly can’t tell us whether she approves of teenagers taking trendy selfies with her coffin.

When it comes to taking trendy selfies with the dead body, I think we should be honest that it’s easy to treat the mummy like a huge spectacle. Personally, I get excited, in a morbid sort of way, to experience the reality of the ancient past and even grapple a little bit with my own mortality. However, people getting excited also risk damage to the coffin if it were to be touched, and damage to the integrity of the remains, if it were posted on social media right along with cat pics and memes. Therefore, if the museum wants to display the mummy, they need to be conscientious about channeling the excitement the mummy elicits, so that we can all be intellectually enriched in a sustainable and respectful way.

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