From my visit to the British Museum on 8 October 2018
Today my intention was to join a WCA group on a trip to the print archive at the BM. Arriving late I missed the group, but decided to take the opportunity to visit the permanent display. The subject for my MCP is the found object and the BM is the ultimate repository for exactly that. I use the word “found” loosely. Certainly many of the objects have been “lost” by other peoples/cultures. Whether or not they were “found” is questionable. They have certainly been appropriated. The phrase “Finders keepers” springs to mind. The “ultimate repository” for “the found object” sounds like a giant lost property warehouse. Perhaps that is what the BM is. Good luck with trying to claim anything back though.
I decide to take a look at the Egyptian stuff, after all Egyptian artefact and British Museum are synonymous. In the first display cabinet I look in:
Object 1: Mummy board– placed directly over the wrapped body. A mask made of cedarwood, plastered, and gilded, with inlaid eyes and an openwork (filigree) cover for the legs made from sycamore fig.
Object 2: Outer coffin– cedarwood.
Both look like archetypal Egyptian “Mummy” ie the human shape box with a figure depicted on it.
Object 3: Bronze probe (after 664 BC). Looks like a bit of bent coat hanger, but made of bronze, so probably not very bendy. The display label advises the shape and dimensions of this rod suggest that it may have been used in mummification to extract the brain via the nose. Wow. What would that be like? Like mascerating a cauliflower with a bent crochet hook through a keyhole. What is the texture of the human brain like?? Probably more slippery than a cauliflower.
Object 4: Flint Knife (prehistoric period before circa 3100 BC). A stone knife was used to make the incision in the left flank through which the internal organs were extracted. Easier than getting the slippy cauliflower brain out via the nostrils.
Then in the same display case I see her.
Object 5: Mummy of an unidentified woman (about 700BC).
Brought from Egypt by the Duke of Sutherland, and unwrapped by the naturalist Sir Richard Owen in London in 1873. The body, that of an elderly woman exemplifies Egyptian embalming processes at their most efficient. The viscera were extracted via the flank incision, separately embalmed and placed in the body cavity. Great care has been taken to preserve the facial features, particularly the shape of the nose and threads have been wound around the fingers to secure the nail, skin and small bones in place. Molten resin has been very carefully applied to the entire surface of the corpse.
The linen wrappings are of various textures. Those closest to the body were heavily impregnated with resin, and large quantities of this substance were applied between layers of the wrappings forming a hard carapace. Fragments of beadwork found among the wrappings may have formed part of a bead net or collar.
This “object” is a human object. A human being. Once person, now object. Objectified. By death, by embalmers, by the Duke of Sutherland and Sir Richard Owen, and now by me the museum visitor.
This is a woman object. Probably once an important woman. She managed to reach old age and was thought to be important enough to have her body preserved. From Egypt so perhaps a woman of colour? Regardless of her status in life, now she lies naked on display in the British Museum for the general public to gawp at.
The resin soaked cloth wrapping (looks similar to hessian) is around her and covers the genital area although the rest of the body is visible. Is this a deliberate or is that just the way the cloth falls? It is hard to tell. If deliberate, is it out of respect for woman object, or rather in consideration of the sensibilities of the museum audience?
There is nothing to indicate her height though she doesn’t look very tall. Possibly she is of normal height for those times. The body is slight but I suppose all desiccated bodies are. I notice the good condition of the finger nails, elegant, not bitten or broken, and not too long. A noisy group of primary schoolchildren notice it is a human object and crowd round the display case but not for long. They can take the objectification of a human in their stride it seems. This body, this person’s experience is too removed to make the same impact. Just another object on display. Are they conscious that she too was once young and animated as they are? Someone’s child. Someone’s daughter. Someone’s wife perhaps? Most likely. Someone’s mother, grandmother? Again most likely unless she was infertile or her husband was, though at that time they would probably attribute any lack of fertility to her.
The label advised she was brought from Egypt by the Duke of Sutherland and unwrapped by naturalist Sir Richard Owen. Abducted and stripped by two male strangers and held in the captivity of the display cabinet for entertainment of more strangers.
The woman object is approximately 2,718 years old. How soon after death did she stop being a person and become an object?