Covering Up the Mummies

Covering Up the Mummies

A confluence of influences has contributed to problematizing the holding of human remains in collections. In particular, these are the crisis of cultural authority contributing to professional activism and weak resistance to it, and the rise of the body as a site of identity and political struggle. So far I have examined this development in relation to remains from overseas indigenous groups, and the formation and impact of a particular Pagan group. This chapter analyzes the activity around uncontested human remains, focusing primarily on their display, and further examining the influences and limits to the construction of this problem by looking in greater detail at the interaction between professionals and particular bodies. The impact of concerns about human remains on those uncontested is eclectic and inconsistent, but there is an identifiable impact. I first discuss the exhibition of the bog body Lindow Man, then the covering of Egyptian Mummies at Manchester Museum. Following which I present further analysis of the respect discourse and the policies of particular museums. Finally, I turn to the exhibition Skeletons: London’s Buried Bones, where I suggest professionals are attempting to reauthorize scientific research and the display of bodies by adopting the discourse of identity work.


Bog bodies—preserved ancient human bodies found in sphagnum bogs—are an archaeological phenomenon that has attracted extensive scholarly and public attention since the bodies were first discovered, in the eighteenth century, in Northern Europe, Britain and Ireland. Thanks to the conditions of the bog, many have preserved skin and internal organs, skin, hair and body parts, which means that they resemble the human person more closely than ancient skeletons. As well as extensive academic research, bog bodies have been the inspiration for popular writing, art work and poetry, such as that of Seamus Heaney (1975).

Archaeologist Nina Nordström (2007) describes how certain bodies from the past become the subjects of great public and academic interest. There are various contributing factors to this, she suggests, deriving from the particular bodies as well as the cultural climate in which they are discussed. Despite the influence of the present on how we view these bodies, Nordström makes the point that our consistent ambition is to find out ‘the truth’ about them: who they were and how they lived. This is an observation that should be borne in mind as we discuss the process and outcome of the Lindow Man exhibition.

Lindow Man is the name given to the naturally-preserved bog body of a man from the late Iron Age, discovered in the mid-1980s in a peat bog at Lindow Moss, North England. He is Britain’s best known and most studied bog body. Archaeologists Stead, Bourke and Brothwell (1986) edited the first comprehensive book on Lindow Man, which compiles all the initial different strands of research that had been carried out on the body. This was followed by a number of works (see for instance, Turner and Scaife 1995). Questions considered pertain to discovering who Lindow Man was, how he lived, what he ate, what he wore and hunted with, what religion he might have been, what ritualistic practices he might have partaken in, when he lived, and how he died. He is of particular interest due to speculation that he was the victim of a sacrificial killing.

Hallam, Hockey and Howarth (1999) explain that with specific cultural and specific institutional contexts, such the passage of time and the establishment of the coroner’s court, the body parts of the dead shift from the category of ‘dead body’ to that of ‘anatomical objects’. As an example of this re-contextualization, they describe the status of Tollund Man, a bog body from the fourth century BC, found in Denmark in 1950. Hallam, Hockey and Howarth argue that this bog body is no longer considered a ‘dead body’ because he falls outside of social relationships. Instead, they posit, he has become an anatomical object due to the context in which is displayed: ‘[H]e became a clinical object, a focus for scientific interrogation, an objectified ornament of antiquity. The Tollund Man, as he is now known, lies in a glass case in the Museum of Silkeborg’ (Hallam, Hockey and Howarth 1999: 92). Given that bog bodies fall outside social relationships, and are not tied to a contemporary claims-making group or associated with a particular past—unlike the human remains of Aboriginal peoples—how is Lindow Man considered in the period of the controversy over human remains?

Lindow Man is usually held in the British Museum, but was loaned for a temporary period to Manchester University Museum (MUM). Earlier exhibitions at MUM in 1987 and 1991 examined Lindow Man’s life and times and presented the results of the latest forensic work. The exhibition of 1987 was one of the most popular in the history of the museum (Alberti et al. 2009). The 2008–2009 exhibition Lindow Man: A Bog Body Mystery drew upon research carried out over the past 25 years and aimed to explore the different meanings that Lindow Man’s body holds for different people. The explicit intention was to reflect changes in society and in academic thinking that had taken place since then. As Bryan Sitch, curator and Head of Humanities at MUM, explained:

When it accepted the offer of the British Museum to lend the body of Lindow Man for a year, the Manchester Museum was anxious to take account not only of changing academic interpretations of the discovery but also of increasing sensitivity towards human remains within society more generally. (Sitch 2009: 52)

Sitch continues: ‘[H]uman remains had become more contentious, partly because of the Alder Hey scandal, in which it emerged that organs had been removed by hospitals from hundreds of deceased children without the families’ permission’, and also ‘because of the repatriation of human remains to indigenous communities in Australia, New Zealand and the Americas’. In addition, he notes ‘the voices of marginalized groups such as pagans, whose relationship with the dead is based on spirituality and a respect for the ancestors’, thereby associating these three issues together.

The museum ran a consultation on the exhibition, to which a number of Pagans, archaeologists, curators and local figures were invited and I attended. Two meetings were held, at the museum, one in February 2007 and the other a year later in February 2008. Piotr Bienkowski, the deputy director of Manchester University Museum, opened the first meeting, stating:

At Manchester Museum we are increasingly consulting as a museum with all stakeholders. We no longer stand as a single authoritative voice—those days are gone. There is an exciting wide range of voices here: museum staff, university staff, archaeologists, councillor Paul Murphy, the community advisory panel, Pagans, and Honouring the Ancient Dead: I hope I haven’t missed anyone out. The plan is to produce a unique exhibition. We don’t want to produce just one view, we want to bring out different ways of presenting different views of Lindow Man. We want your views, not just those of the traditional establishment voices.

This represents a clear attempt to portray the new inclusive museum as different to the past, and moving away from the ‘traditional establishment voices’.

At the first meeting for the consultation, participants were asked by Bryan Sitch and Piotr Bienkowski, who co-ordinated the event, how they felt about exhibiting Lindow Man; specifically whether he should be buried and what would constitute respectful treatment. Despite anticipation that there would be disquiet about his display, what was notable about the consultation was that no one argued for the burial of Lindow Man. Nor did participants have firm ideas about how to organize the exhibition. Instead, those consulted raised a variety of different concerns, all of which had very little to do with this particular bog body. In short, Lindow Man became a vehicle for their individual preoccupations.

The Labour Councillor, Paul Murphy, wanted to raise the issue of multiculturalism through the exhibition, and was worried about how to entice local visitors into the museum. He speculated that the museum could show that his constituency was genetically related to Lindow Man, through DNA research, which would make the show relevant to them. He posed the question of how the museum could involve the Afro-Caribbean community members of his ward, which revealed this councillor’s underlying concerns about connecting to the electorate. A couple of archaeologists ventured that the exhibition could foster an interest in the past, in order to address contemporary confusion about identity. One Druid suggested that the display of Lindow Man could promote a sense of community. A number of Pagans and archaeologists thought the exhibition could stimulate discussions about death, and confront what they described as the ‘death taboo’ of the present period. Three archaeologists argued that the display of Lindow Man could draw attention to the problem of the environment, by flagging up the nature of the peat bog in which he was found and how it is threatened by building on the site. As the following exchange demonstrates, the promotion of multiculturalism and identity was an accepted concern of this meeting:

Councillor: It’s good to hear about Paganism. It should be central in the exhibition. It shows that multiculturalism is possible through this exhibition.

Sitch: Yes it’s important to discuss diversity. Pupils should show an under standing of different views. If they can understand Lindow Man maybe they can understand what it is to be a Muslim.

The particular concerns about diversity are projected on to Lindow Man (and Paganism) as potential themes of the exhibition, although there is no obvious reason why the exhibition of a bog body from the Iron Age would address Muslim identity, or multiculturalism more broadly. Bryan Sitch subsequently suggested that Lindow Man could be an ‘ambassador for diversity’—for if the audience could understand Lindow Man, they might be able to ‘appreciate that other people are different too’. In the report on the consultation, Sitch wrote:

Lindow Man could be a community ambassador. If schools, children and students can be taught to appreciate his way of life, some sense of his spiritual values in so far as they can be reconstructed from 2000 years ago, how much easier might it be for the same children to understand a present day religion or culture? (Sitch 2007a: 8)

In a similar vein, Sitch suggested that the show might help promotion constructive discussion about the environment and terrorism:

There is also the question of his relationship with the landscape and the importance of green issues in present day society. Potentially there are wider issues involving ethnic diversity, regional identity and even terrorism.(Sitch 2007a: 9)

Overall, nobody argued that having Lindow Man on display was a problem, and very few were interested in the particular body or its history. The majority of attendees at this consultation used Lindow Man to discuss their specific preoccupations. Despite the rhetoric of concern about how human remains should be treated in museums, and the specific consultation on Lindow Man being held ostensibly in response to this concern, the bog body itself was not an object of concern. Rather, Lindow Man was a focus for participants’ interests, which were influenced by present day preoccupations that included identity, multiculturalism and environmentalism.

The main conclusion reached after consultation was that the diversity of opinion and interpretation about Lindow Man, from within academia and the public, should be centrally promoted in the exhibition. This approach was counterpoised to previous ways of exhibiting the bog body which, it was suggested, falsely implied a degree of certainty about the theories of how Lindow Man lived. Previous exhibitions, it was suggested, exaggerated the knowledge of what is merely speculation about his life, and did not reflect different interpretations. The MUM show would tackle this:

The exhibition should explore alternative points of view, including archaeological interpretation and more spiritual perspectives. It should be a questioning exhibit, particularly if there are few hard and fast facts or if the facts are disputed. It should not tell people but admit that there are some things we do not know. It could question the sensationalist glamorous interpretation of Lindow Man. There should be stories and contradictory stories.(Sitch 2007a: 3)

This approach, which questions the possibility of knowing about the life and death of Lindow Man, was made explicit in the show, by promoting a diversity of opinion and taking a pluralist approach. As the feedback to the second consultation notes, the exhibition enacted ‘the principle of multivocality or “talking with more than one voice”’ (Sitch 2007b: 1). In February 2008, Sitch told me that the exhibition was an ‘exemplar in the museum’ and that this was an example of the ‘museum not speaking with a single authoritative voice’. The deliberate aim was to ‘reflect uncertainty’. The show was organized around seven different interpretations of Lindow Man, through recorded personal testimony from the following people: a forensic scientist, a landscape archaeologist, two museum curators, a former peat worker, someone from the Lindow community and Emma Restall Orr, of the Pagan group Honouring the Ancient Dead. Such an approach displaces curatorial authority by presenting these interpretations as equal.

The other central theme promoted throughout the exhibition was that human remains should be treated differently to the way they were before. It was argued that previously archaeologists have treated Lindow Man as an object and that this museum would instead treat him like a person. One of the curators explained in an interview in February 2008, that the old, archaeological way of looking at Lindow Man was problematic:

I think maybe ten years ago I would have looked at Lindow Man as an example of a wonderfully preserved bit of archaeology [ … ] I think I now see him in a very different way, in a more emotive way and for that reason the approach that we’ve adopted to display Lindow Man, i.e. displaying him with sensitivity and respect, is one that I personally have a lot of sympathy for.

Archaeology, in the curator’s view, was less emotional and sensitive than his own. He was not sure if the public would agree, however, reminding us that concerns about human remains are not driven by public demand.

I think that our approach; the respectful, sensitive approach, while I find that praiseworthy, my impression is it might be in advance of what the public sensitivity actually demands. I … but I think museums can have a very important role in guiding public attitudes and on this very sensitive and emotive subject … I think it’s no bad thing that we actually try and guide … not indoctrinate, but guide our public into perhaps viewing human remains in a different way than they’ve seen them in the past.

Activists at this museum presented archaeology and museum professionals as unemotional, controlling individuals who need to open up more and consider the different views of dead bodies, to treat them less like objects and more like people. Paradoxically, there was considerably less reflection on this particular body as a person who lived thousands of years ago. There was little discussion, compared to writing and previous exhibitions on Lindow Man, about who this person might have been and may have lived. Despite the rhetoric about the need to treat Lindow Man as a person, and with respect, this approach has the consequence of relegating research about his life to a lower priority.


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