For years the Field Museum in Chicago has had the desiccated naked body of a child on display—at child viewing level no less—in their Inside Ancient Egypt exhibit. For over a decade I have used this as an example in lectures in my Museums, Exhibitions and Representations class as an example of the power of museums to reframe objects. Put a dead body on the street and the police will be looking for a murderer, put it behind glass in a museum and it is an educational object. What visitors are supposed to learn from an encounter with this object, however, is not exactly clear.
On my trip to the museum today I briefly revisited the Inside Ancient Egypt exhibit and was surprised to see the child’s body still on display—lying naked and exposed on a white cloth lying in just enough sand so as to evoke the idea of desert Egypt.
Over two thousand years ago the child was buried in a grave—prepared for an eternity in the afterlife. Little did that child or its family know that it had a future as a museum object. Now it is simply:
Male Child. Late Period.
It is a curiosity for visitors to gawk at—no less than the many curiosities that visitors gawked at during the Columbian Exhibition that laid the foundation for the museum.
Apparently all one needs to do in order to display the naked dead body of a child in full public view is call it a “mummy.”