In early 2020, we (the Conservation Department) began working on a human remains policy for our department. Our intention was to formalize some of the unwritten rules we have been following and to establish clear guidance for our work and interaction with human remains in the Penn Museum’s collection. Working on and implementing this policy, and regularly revisiting it, will help us to care more sensitively and ethically for these remains with respect for the individual people and also with respect for others who may come into contact with them.
One of the first things we decided is that we would no longer share images of human remains on the internet in any location. Anyone who has followed our blog since it was established in 2012 will know that this is a departure from our previous practices, which included writing posts and sharing images about our work on the ancient Egyptian mummified human individuals in the Artifact Lab. So in addition to no longer sharing such images, we are working on editing our blog and removing, cropping, or blurring images that include human remains. This is not an effort to erase our past practices, but rather an acknowledgement that our feelings on this issue have changed and we no longer support sharing these images publicly.
Another practice we established that affects the blog is that we no longer use the term “mummy” and instead use “mummified human individuals” to refer to Ancient Egyptian people whose bodies were preserved for the afterlife. We have always referred to these individuals by name if known, and we continue this practice. In our experience working in public view and speaking to visitors about our work, we have found that the word “mummy” results in objectifying these people, causes confusion, and creates an unintended emotional distance from them as human beings.
We have many images of human remains on this blog and we have used the term “mummy” countless times to refer to mummified human individuals. We are in the process of making changes to the language and photographs on the blog, while attempting to retain the content as much as possible. We are archiving all original posts for our internal records. During this time we may hide some posts from public view so that we can properly edit them. We appreciate your patience as we carry out this work and we welcome questions and comments. Finally, while most of the content we are editing relates to ancient Egyptian human remains, as that was an early focus of the Artifact Lab, we intend to apply our policies to all human remains, regardless of culture, origin, or time period.
We are grateful to our colleagues who organized and participated in the discussion panel Your Mummies, Their Ancestors? Caring for and About Ancient Egyptian Human Remains on August 18, 2020, which covered this topic extensively and helped shape our discussions as we developed our policy. This panel was co-organized by objects conservator Charlotte Parent, who recently published an article in the April – May 2021 issue of News in Conservation and offers thoughtful perspectives for conservators and museum professionals who work with the remains of ancient Egyptian individuals.