Monday, November 06, 2006

How is this legal??

Corpse for sale

So I'm flipping through the Autumn issue of Tribal Art magazine, and lo, what do I find but an ad for a mummy. Unwrapped, Nazca/Huari, c. 600-1000 AD. With "extreme cranial elongation," the result of head-wrapping during infancy and early childhood, practiced primarily by cultural elites. It's been on display since the late 19th century, so at least I know the mummy was dug out of its grave before UNESCO and other international laws prohibiting grave robbing. Price available upon request. Jamieson's website also has a mummy of an Egyptian child for sale, including x-rays so you can be sure you have a REAL mummy, not a fake.

But "legal" doesn't make it okay. I'm surprised it's STILL legal to trade in human remains. The dealer is in Canada, and I'm not familiar with Canadian law, but he is advertising in a magazine with a strong American readership. I've always gotten the heebie-jeebies at museums with human remains on display. The peat bog mummy at the British National Museum bothered me. The Metropolitan's show of late Egyptian mummy portraits, also disturbing. Depressing.

Displaying dead bodies, the bodies of people lovingly wrapped, interred, or mummified, seems wrong to me. Distasteful. Disrespectful. And wrapped up, deeply entwined, with the racist history of Western anthropology and ethnology. These bodies on display are almost always of people of color, not Europeans. They are Indians or Egyptians or Africans or South Americans, not whitey. They are someone else's grandmother, not yours.

There are people who think NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act) is bollocks, that museums should be entitled to keep what they have no matter what. But then I say to them: "Mainly, they just want their grandmother's bones back." This way of looking at things never fails to stop a whiner in their tracks.

They just want Grandmother's bones back.

Is that so hard to understand? So why are we as an industry - museum/collector/gallery - still dealing in human remains? I don't have answers. I don't mean to demonize this particular dealer because he's one of many in the trade dealing in sacred things, in human remains, in things stolen and looted from tribal cultures. Because some of these goods have been legitimately sold or traded by their rightful owners. Museums, anthropologists, researchers, all benefit from the study of material culture of ancient civilizations, whether mummies or pot sherds. But there comes a point where the line is crossed, and corpses on display is definitely on the other side of that line.

[that contemporary body art show where people donated their bodies to the artist to be flayed & artistically embalmed, that's a whole other story, because the participants were willing]

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