University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Confronting Death at the Penn Museum

By: Molly Gleeson

October 12, 2015

This is me, up-close and personal with our mummy Nespekashuti.
This is me, up-close and personal with our mummy Nespekashuti.

After three years of working on ancient Egyptian mummies In the Artifact Lab, I’ve gotten used to being around death every day.

And, in reality, all of us here at the Museum are surrounded by death – many artifacts in our collection were excavated from tombs and relate to funerary practices and provide intimate connections to the people who were buried at these sites. This word even shows up in the title of one of our current exhibitions: Beneath the Surface: Life, Death, and Gold in Ancient Panama. Even more tangible is our Physical Anthropology Section, which curates approximately 12,000 to 15,000 human and primate individuals and carries out extensive research on the collection.

Generally speaking, death is a sensitive and charged topic in our culture today, and so is the possession of human remains and funerary objects, and many museums have responded in recent years by being very selective about where and how to display human remains, or even avoiding the exhibition of this material altogether. While most of the human remains in our collection are in storage, we do have some on display in the galleries, including the Egyptian mummies and skeletal material from the Morton Collection in the Year of Proof: Making and Unmaking Race.

Due to the sensitivities around death, it is not a topic that we are necessarily inclined to discuss on a regular basis, even here at the Museum, and therefore it is often easier or more comfortable to separate ourselves from it. I am as guilty of this as anyone, but earlier this week, I had the opportunity to attend Death Salon: Mutter Museum, and for two days, I was immersed in this topic, so I guess you can say that I have death on my mind.

Death Salon is an organization that was established to bring people together in the spirit of the eighteenth-century salon to encourage conversations on mortality and mourning and their effects on culture and history. Death Salon: Mutter Museum was their fifth event and it brought together academics, historians, writers, artists, musicians, death professionals, and enthusiasts to engage on these topics in meaningful ways. There were two full days of presentations and many other special programs including musical performances, behind-the-scenes tours of the Mutter Museum, and even Death Quizzo. I spoke on the first day about my work on our Egyptian mummies In the Artifact Lab, and I posted an overview of the conference on the Artifact Lab blog, where you can find more details about the speakers.

Presenting on the conservation of Egyptian mummies at Death Salon: Mutter Museum
Presenting on the conservation of Egyptian mummies at Death Salon: Mutter Museum

The Death Salon was fascinating and thought-provoking, and emotional at times. Because of the nature of my position at the Museum, I am often thinking about human remains, related public reactions and sensitivities, and museum stewardship of these collections, but I have never had the opportunity to be surrounded by conversations about death, mortality, and culture for such a concentrated period of time. And this has made me think a lot about how our Museum offers a unique space for visitors to explore these topics for themselves, through our collections and the opportunities we provide for people to interact with them.

I mentioned a couple special exhibitions that specifically address human remains, death, burial, and/or funerary practices, but all of the galleries contain artifacts which may encourage reflection on mortality. If you take a quick look at our events calendar you will see several upcoming events relating to this topic as well, including “The Voices of the Dead: A Global Perspective on the Archaeology of Death,” a half-day symposium being held on Friday, October 23, and the annual Day of the Dead celebration being held on Saturday, October 31. For many years now our Museum has organized a colorful, festive event in honor of this holiday, in collaboration with the Mexican Cultural Center and the Mexican Consulate in Philadelphia. In addition to music, dance, storytelling, and arts and crafts, our Day of the Dead event features a large traditional altar created by Mexican artists, along with many smaller altars, which provide spaces to leave offerings honoring those who have died.

Day of the Dead celebrations at the Penn Museum in 2014
Day of the Dead celebrations at the Penn Museum in 2014

Oh, and when you come to the Museum don’t forget to visit us In the Artifact Lab. We are currently finishing up the treatment of our mummy Nespekashuti, and we have many new objects in the lab – check out some of them here on our blog. If you visit we’ll be happy to tell you more about our deceased residents and what we are learning about them – in fact, we encourage this dialogue during our open window sessions which take place twice a day. Looking forward to seeing some of you In the Artifact Lab soon.

Photo credits: Penn Museum

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