Technology and knowing at the British Museum

Haidy Geismar, UCL
I have been thinking a lot about the power of digital imaging and the kinds of subjectivities that are built into the construction of three dimensional images as particular kinds of visualizations of museum collections. The British Museum is currently host to the exhibition, Ancient Lives New Discoveries,  an exhibition of eight mummies from Egypt and the Sudan ranging from 3500 BC to 700AD. The exhibition presents these eight mummies as individuals and showcases a collaboration with digital imaging and technology partners. Instead of actually unwrapping the mummies, CT and other scanning technology was used to look inside both the sarcophagi and the textile wrappings of the bodies, to uncover the bones and flesh within and to create new three dimensional visualizations.
The exhibition showcases the wrapped figures alongside interactive screens which allow the visitor to peel back the layers, ostensibly to see into the very heart of the mummy. Each of the eight figures is presented as a named person, with a dossier describing their appearance and any known health issues, their height, date of living, and some basic facts that were put together, largely from inscriptions on their coffins, and they are displayed with other relevant artifacts.bm2Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum is quoted on the exhibition press release as saying: “This new technology is truly ground-breaking, allowing us to reconstruct and understand the lives of these eight, very different, individuals.” (and see this Guardian interactive for a full experience). Whilst the interactives are effective in demonstrating the deftness of CT scanning to look without disturbing the fabric and wrappings, the assertion that these are new forms of knowing these mummies as people was in fact jarring. With each mummy, careful discussion of the lavish care and attention paid to the wrappings, and to the carving and painting, often with gold leaf of the sarcophagus spoke to the esteem with which these figures were held and to their unique qualities as individuals. The exhibition text explained how important the stylized presentation of the cultural, carved body was in mediating the both the memory and status of the person in their own present, and in ushering them into the world of the dead, where amulets and small carvings facilitated their comfortable passage. As interesting as it was to look through the digital visualizations at the painstaking ways in which the bodily organs and brains were stored within the skeletal frame, the painting of fingernails and toenails with gold and the scattering of gold leaf within the wrappings, we learn little more of real significance about these people than we do from the embarrassment of riches within which they were wrapped and contained.
I visited the exhibition with my six year old daughter and we were very struck by the figure of Tjayasetimu, a young temple singer, who was probably seven years old when she died in 800 BC. “Why did she die?” my daughter asked. Despite entering the intimacy of Tjayasetimu’s shroud and scanning her body, we do not know. We know more about her humanity from her magnificent coffin. gold-face_624x624
Most tellingly, unlike other mummies, whose carved hands are presented as wrapped within their funeral clothes, Tjayasetimu, Singer of the Interior of Amun, is presented as though she was still alive, with her hands free of her shroud. This more than anything suggested to me a sadness at the death of a child, more than 2000 years ago. The presentation of these mummies as bones, flesh, brains and organs, cannot make them more into individuals then those who crafted their memorials. Indeed, that act of humanity, to protect and preserve these bodies for an infinite future, was what was stripped away through this sterile peeking inside. I felt certain that this was not the afterlife envisaged.

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