Last week I took my nephew William to the Cincinnati Art Museum. This is what he loved: the mummy in the classics gallery.
"What is it?" he asked me.
"A mommy?" he asked.
"A mummy," I said. "A very old dead person."
Maybe I confused him, even scared him a little, but he's learning the language. A mummy, a mummy, a mummy, he said over and over in his 4-year-old voice. We looked at the stone crypt for a long time. Though I grew up in Cincinnati and have logged considerable hours at our museum, I confess I've never really seen that mummy until William pointed it out.
I suspect that every art museum in the country has at least one mummy in its permanent collection.
True to my pared-down answer to William, it is a dead body. And more.
It's art: Look at the carvings, the portraiture, the scenes of life tattooed into the stone. It's clear that an artist, however unknown, made those etchings and images with considerable talent.
As art, it shows the modern viewer a visual history. The Egyptians believed in an afterlife and performed ritualistic cleaning and burials, just as we do today. They separated organs from body, placing each in particular containers -- called Canopic jars -- and tossing out what was deemed unnecessary (the brain, for example).
The corpse's face would be engraved or painted or otherwise depicted onto the mummy so that the ka -- like our idea of soul -- would be able to find its body again.
Looking at the mummy in the CAM raises an issue that seems to be everywhere in town right now -- human bodies on display. The Cincinnati Museum Center did a smart thing by bringing Bodies ... The Exhibition to town this month. I've yet to see it (my husband and I have penciled it in for Valentine's Day), but I'm thrilled nonetheless.
Bodies ... The Exhibition has generated a lot of flack -- and not just in Cincinnati. Questions remain about the morality of using these unknown human bodies for study. The same question has hardly been raised to the same degree over mummies in art museums.
From what I can understand, there are two reasons why: First, the mummies are not as conspicuous as the dissected corpses in Bodies. But I believe that the second answer is more to the point.
The mummy highlights apparent differences between our "modern" culture and that of "pagan" ancient Egypt, while the exhibit at the Museum Center focuses on how similar all our human bodies truly are.
In this respect, making the bodies more personal, more modern, more human also makes them more controversial. We see ourselves in them in a way we don't (but perhaps should) in the CAM's mummy.
And, in another twist, check out the body as is in "art-art" at Manifest Gallery's current exhibition, Body of Work.
CONTACT LAURA JAMES: firstname.lastname@example.org