I had no intention of continuing my musings on the Penn Museum’s absent mummies and artifacts in their “Secrets of the Silk Road” exhibit (see Don’t Demonize the Chinese: Happy New Year, Rabbit). This is not because I was being pressured by the director of the museum to stop blogging about this (in this blog that hardly anyone reads! What was he worried about?). He warned of consequences for me and my department but since I was already fired by this same director (see What’s in a Name?: The Real End of Anthropology) I can’t imagine what other consequences I would suffer. The pillory? Shaming? Wearing a big scarlet “A” (for Anthropologist!)? I reminded him of the rules of Academic Freedom (and I should have added good ‘ole American Free Speech) and it has rested since then.
I was willing to let all this go until the article in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer online. It was just too funny to pass up the opportunity to comment on the latest news.
The article reports that the museum, knowing for a while (at least two weeks) that it was going to have trouble getting actual artifacts for this exhibit, started manufacturing fake mummies, or “dummy mummies” as someone in the museum came to call them. It also included cutout photographs of the objects that could not be used. Now, since this show’s entire foundation is pretty objects, that is just the funniest development, these low-tech representations of real precious artifacts. I wonder if anyone in the museum sees the irony?
The director of exhibits was quoted as saying, “We had to do something. We had so much invested in this.” Ugh! Did she really say that? How crass that must sound to the paying public. How about, instead, “We had to do something. Our audience really deserves more than pretty objects. They deserve an intelligent conversation about culture and ideas and people and contact and time and travel and concepts of space and being.” But, alas, you will never hear that coming out of the current museum designers at the Penn Museum. They have too much invested in it.
The really funny part of the news article is that one visitor is quoted as saying, “If they hadn’t told me, I probably would have thought they were real” and another supposedly asked, “”The mummies aren’t here?” Maybe the museum shouldn’t have told anyone and just duplicated all the objects secretly. Who would know or care? Well, actually, the museum itself would because it has entered the arena of potentially-blockbuster shows. In this arena, the goals is getting bodies in the door. With this comes boasting rights: I got more people than you, I got to show harder-to-get objects than you, I got more publicity than you, I sold more stuff in my shop.
In the museum world, there has been an interesting discussion on whether museums actually need to have and show all their objects in order to carry out their mission (see Steven Conn’s book). I would argue that any museum could make a very compelling exhibit with anything (even dummy mummies) as long as there were some Big Ideas behind the exhibit. These Big Ideas recur in all the important cultural conversations we have (in literature, history books, novels, music, art, movies, mythology, every format you can think of): what does it take to be human, what is valuable, what differences matter, who is us and who is other, who gets to decide all these things, and so on.
But that is not what was happening at the Penn Museum. This was not an effort to turn around and go in the right direction away from a failed exhibit. You have to remember that this show was advertised for its spectacular objects with descriptions of the beauty of the female mummy being most prominent: .”…with graceful eyelashes, long flaxen hair and serene expression, the ‘Beauty of Xiaohe’ seems to have just fallen to sleep.” Sheesh! When anthropology/archaeology museum exhibits are based on the beauty and uniqueness of their objects, then they are playing in that different arena: that of the art museum blockbuster. That is pedigree of this show (it was formed by the Bowers Museum in California which is known for its display of material culture from other cultures as if they were fine art) and it is not an accidental part of the problem here.
Everybody supposedly loves mummies: isn’t that how this show was marketed? It was so funny, then, that one of the parents at the show’s opening stated that he didn’t care that the mummies weren’t there because his daughter was afraid of mummies anyway. The daughter said, “They’re just scary.” Amen.
From the Philadelphia Inquirer article described above: