This blog post is a little different because for the last three weeks I’ve been off work travelling and trekking in Peru. However, the good and bad side of working in museums and public engagement is that even holidays bring up work-related questions.

In Peru we visited three museums, two of which displayed mummies. We were also shown by our guide an open tomb on the hillside high above Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley.

I will warn you now, that the rest of this blog post will contain two images of human remains. I am not sure how you feel about that? I am not sure how I feel about it either. I know a lot has been written about the issue of the display of human remains, and it’s not a subject I claim to have any expertise in at all, but it was something I found myself discussing at great length with the other member of my trekking group when they found out I worked at a museum.

The first mummy we came across was in an open tomb that our Peruvian guide Jesus showed us in the quarry high on the mountainside above Ollantaytambo.

Tomb in Inca quarry above Ollantaytambo

This tomb, and others like it, are assumed to be from the Inca period and contain individuals who worked in the quarry cutting stone for the building of Ollantaytambo. However the tombs are not well-studied, they have instead been plundered by grave robbers and then left open. Our route past this tomb was not very busy, being about three hours from the nearest village and also off the main tourist trekking routes, but it still came as a surprise to us to see the bodies so exposed.

The second was at the museum of Maria Reiche near Nazca.

Museo Maria Reiche sign

This mummy came as quite a surprise to our group. As you can see from the photo below, it is prominently displayed. And Maria Reiche was a german maths teacher who studied the Nazca lines so we weren’t really expecting any mummies in the museum dedicated to her.

pre-Inca peruvian mummy

Pre-inca mummy on display at the Maria Reiche Museum

At the Museo Regional de Ica in the town of Ica, we were presented with an entire room full of mummies and skulls. This room held an interpretation board at the entrance referencing the ICOM ethics code and this is what sparked the discussion in our group and their questions for me.

Finally, in Lima, we encountered the most modern museum of the trip. The Museo Nacional de Arqueología Antropología e Historia del Perú (National Museum of the Archaeology, Anthropology, and History of Peru) is the largest and oldest state museum in Peru, located on Plaza Bolívar. This is a very good museum which I would highly recommend, it has relatively up to date interpretation (some in English) and fantastic collections. At this museum we did not see any unwrapped human remains on display but a quick google search has revealed some photos of displays we must have missed as we were caught up in the amazing pottery.

The ICOM code of ethics 2006 says:
“4.3 Exhibition of Sensitive Materials
Human remains and materials of sacred significance must be displayed in a manner consistent with professional standards and, where known, taking into account the interests and beliefs of members of the community, ethnic or religious groups from whom the objects originated. They must be presented with great tact and respect for the feelings of human dignity held by all peoples.”

In the UK, many museums are removing human remains from their collections, sometimes returning them to their countries of origin for reburial. Some UK museums returned human remains in the 1990s, others have begun to do so more recently.

In my discussions with people on this trip, it seems that as a culture the British are roughly in the middle of the spectrum of attitudes towards human remains being on display. At one end of the spectrum, Australian Aboriginals, New Zealand Maori and Native Americans feel particularly strongly that remains of their ancestors should not be located in museums. At the other end, the Peruvians I met on this trip had no qualms at all about viewing or displaying mummies.

Perhaps this attitude to long-dead bodies is purely historical and cultural, we certainly heard tales of Inca mummies being kept and displayed after death and paraded on special feast days. With this history then one might imagine an Inca mummy would be honoured to be on display in a 20th Century museum.

Another factor might be the process of ‘natural mummification’. Excuse me if you happen to be eating right now, but some part of me feels that the natural mummification that occurs in the Peruvian desert is just far more palatable than the wet rotting that we imagine goes on under 6 foot of wet British soil and fills us with such repulsion.

So what do you think?

How do you feel both personally and professionally about seeing human remains on display? How did you feel about the mummies in my photos?