Mummification and Moral Blindness

There has recently been an excellent and troubling example. Some museums have started to change their labels. They consider that the use of the word ‘mummy’ demeans the dead, and are using instead the adjective ‘mummified’: thus, for instance ‘mummified person’ or ‘mummified remains’. Fair enough. I approve. Too little consideration is given to the enormous constituency of the dead. But using an adjective instead of a noun doesn’t do much moral work.
By Charles Foster

Image: The Great Sphinx and Pyramids of Gizeh (Giza), 17 July 1839, by David Roberts: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Words are powerful. When a word is outlawed, the prohibition tends to chill or shut down debate in a wide area surrounding that word. That tendency is much discussed, but it’s not my concern here. It’s one thing declaring a no-go area: it’s another when the mere use or non-use of a word is so potent that it makes it impossible to see something that’s utterly obvious.
This is an example of a more general and sinister malaise. Virtue signalling has taken the place of serious, difficult ethical discourse.
The museum manager told CNN that he hoped that ‘our visitors will see her remains for what they really are — not an object of curiosity, but a real human who was once alive and had a very specific belief about how her body should be treated after death.
Consider this: The Great North Museum: Hancock, has on display a mummified Egyptian woman, known as Irtyru.  Visitor research showed that many visitors did not recognise her as a real person. The museum was rightly troubled by that. It sought to display her ‘more sensitively’. It’s not clear from the report what that means, but it seems to include a change in the labelling. She will no longer be a ‘mummy’, but will be ‘mummified’.  She is a ‘mummified person‘:  She’ll still remain in a case, gawped at by mawkish visitors.
Whoever Irtyru was, she did indeed have a ‘very specific belief about how her body should be treated after death’. It did not involve lying in Newcastle, causing school children to scream. To describe her as ‘mummified’ rather than ‘a mummy’ does nothing whatever to address the offence of displaying her in a way wholly inconsistent with that ‘very specific belief’. That the museum apparently thinks it does is a symptom of moral blindness. There is a real issue about the display of Irtyru: it is not addressed by tweaking a word. More worrying is that that tweak seems to render invisible the very moral issue it purports to address. I’m not saying that Irtyru shouldn’t be displayed: I am suggesting that changing a word is no substitute for proper deliberation – let alone real change.
Let that sink in.