This morning, at breakfast, a week late, I read the Sunday Times article “Melvin the Mummy’s New Clothes” and was immediately struck – as I’m sure I was supposed to be – by the title. Melvin the Mummy? Who names a mummy Melvin? As I kept reading I learned that Melvin had recently gone through an “extreme makeover,” that he was originally dressed in “two little boat-neck tunics with cap sleeves,” and now he is once “again snug in his traveling clothes for the afterlife.”
This sounds like something out of the Styles section – until you hit the part about the afterlife. That’s when you remember that this isn’t just a fashion show or a museum exhibit – it is evidence of a practice, a ritual, a belief system about one of the most profound experiences of mankind: death and what we think comes after.
Makeovers and death. A cap-sleeved, boat-neck tunic and death. Traveling clothes and death. It’s hard to keep both in your mind at once, and perhaps that’s why death drops out. Death as well as the person – not the thing – that succumbed to it.
This mummy was given the nickname “Melvin” by Brooklyn Museum staff in the 1950s. Nicknames make a person – or a thing – friendlier. Usually the person or thing has no choice in their nickname: they are most often bestowed by others. Such is the case with Marvin, who, again, I must remember, is not a person but a body, a mummy, and an artifact.
Dictionaries state that an artifact is an object – or the remains of one – made by human beings and characteristic of an earlier time or cultural stage. This man was “made by human beings” and now is a set of “remains,” and both his life and the treatment of his dead body are “characteristic of an earlier time or cultural stage” – but does that make him an object?
“When these mummies were altered and covered, they became artifacts,” Mr. Bleiberg [the Brooklyn Museum’s curator of Egyptian, classical and ancient Middle Eastern art] said, adding that the museum would never show them uncovered. “We display the mummies, and we respect them.”
So if you are altered and covered you become an artifact. So is anyone who has been altered by, say, plastic surgery, and who is wearing clothes – or some kind of covering – an artifact? No wonder paparazzi get away with so much …
Part of me understands this treatment of mummies – of any long-dead person, an anonymous one at that, with absolutely no currently living relation to object to his objectification. But then I think of other images in the news – of people in other parts of the world dying or already dead this month, this week, today – a woman bleeding out in the street after being shot in an anti-government protest; a child’s corpse lying on bare ground, dried out by starvation and thirst; men in stained hospital beds dead of AIDS, flies clustered at the corners of their open mouths. I can’t remember seeing a contemporary picture of an American dead or actively dying. Until relatively recently we couldn’t even see the pictures of flag-draped coffins with Americans inside. But we can see people from elsewhere – other places, other times – actually dying or already dead, or mummified, stripped of their “traveling clothes for the afterlife” or wrapped back up in them.
Some of his museum’s former practices give
Mr. Bleiberg pause. He said he wonders what errors he and his staff members might be making today that would be mortifying 50 years from now. “I worry a lot,” he said. “But you can’t get frozen by that.”
No indeed. We must explore and learn and teach others. But perhaps we might also consider ways to strike a balance between what was meant to be sacred and what has become secular, between what has been buried and what was forced to light, between an ancient assumption of privacy and the modern burn of curiosity, between what was once a person and what is now a thing.
(To read the original article, click here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/arts/design/09mummies.html.)