The British Museum in London, the National Museums of Scotland and the Great North Museum: Hancock have decided to stop using 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.
“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.
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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.”
Mummies have also become associated with curses and villains in movies and literature. A spokesperson from the British Museum in London told the Spanish newspaper El Pais that the shift in language was not really a ban and more about highlighting how “the mummified remains belong to a human being who was once alive”.
“In fact it continues to be used in several of our galleries,” they added.