Sunday, June 25, 2017

304. Americans Are Ghouls









An exciting new exhibit at the American Museum for Historical Archaeology lets visitors probe the deepest mysteries of mummies of exalted personages of 21st-century America, when mummification of dignitaries became a new fad that swept the nation.  Modern science by noninvasive means is able to penetrate the elaborate coffins and sarcophagi in which these personages have lain for centuries, helping us to grasp the baffling civilization then flourishing in North America.  SEE the remarkably preserved remains of the President, the Hollywood Star, the Athlete, the Scientist, and others of that long-vanished and enigmatic civilization.  With the help of interactive devices penetrate the coffins and sarcophagi to view the bodies wrapped in ghostly linen, then unwrap them and view the physical remains themselves, observe and even touch their face, their hair, their arms crossed devoutly on their chest, even their genitals. 


Suitable for kindergarten and up.  Reservations required; members free.

         All right, as of this date there is no such exhibition and no such museum.  This little fantasy was inspired by a full-page add for the current exhibition “Mummies” at the American Museum of Natural History, which most definitely does exist here in Manhattan at 79th Street and Central Park West, a vast institution with marvels to display.   The museum’s website entices prospective visitors with a “teaser” of a video entitled “Unwrap a Mummy Interactive.”  If you click on it, you will see a skeleton with arms crossed on its chest, then a painted Egyptian sarcophagus, then a wrapped body with a cutaway showing its innards: presumably, an appetizer to whet your hunger for the feast that follows at the museum.  All of which, to my unscientific mind, seems just a little sick.

Here, at least, they're featuring gold.  That I can take.
Javier Carbajal

         Is my title exaggerated?  Are Americans ghouls, because of our presumed interest in mummies?  First of all, what is a ghoul?

Definition of Ghoul by Merriam-Webster

Definition of ghoul. 1 : a legendary evil being that robs graves and feeds on corpses. 2 : one suggestive of a ghoul; especially : one who shows morbid interest in things considered shocking or repulsive.

I suggest that unwrapping the mummified dead of an ancient civilization approaches ghoulishness; if the shoe fits, put it on.

         The mummy on display in the video was, after all, a human being who was buried with all due honors by a civilization flourishing a few millennia  ago, in hopes that he/she would live again in an afterlife.  What neither the deceased nor those preserving the deceased could imagine was that, centuries hence, the mummified remains would be removed from the tomb and transported across an ocean to be exhibited in a museum in another culture whose allegedly scientific curiosity precluded any reverence beyond a scrupulous desire to preserve the mummy so it could be studied by specialists and then exhibited to the public.

         Photographs of the exhibited mummies are credited to the Field Museum in Chicago, which, using noninvasive CT scans, developed this exhibit some years back, inviting viewers to “navigate into a sarcophagus, unwrap the outer wrappings, and explore the interior.  You may think that you’ve seen mummies before, but you’ve never seen mummies like this.”  The Field website included comments by visitors, most of whom anticipated the show with relish, but the comment that caught my attention said simply, “Bury the dead, you sick people.”  The American Museum of Natural History’s teaser is a bit less lurid than the Field’s, but what it offers is identical, with its smaller follow-up ads inviting viewers to “unwrap the secrets of mummies.”

         Since I grew up in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, the Field Museum loomed large in my childhood.  I was drawn to it almost obsessively by the dinosaur exhibits and, appropriately housed in a basement chamber that could (with imagination) be likened to a tomb, a display of Egyptian mummies.  Far from being in any way unwrapped, the mummies remained in their elegant painted sarcophagi, which inspired fantasies of a long vanished and mysterious civilization.  Later, when I would see photographs in books showing mummies that had indeed been unwrapped, I found the eerily preserved, or half preserved, remains grotesque. 

File:Mummy Ahmose-Henuttamehu Smith.JPG
The daughter of a pharaoh.  Does this transform you?

File:Ramses I Mummy.jpg
Or this?  The Pharaoh Ramses I.
Alyssa Bivins

         What we do today in the name of science isn’t simply, at times, grotesque; it can become criminal.  The best example I know of is the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service from 1932 to 1972 at Tuskegee University, a black university in Alabama.  Some 600 impoverished African American sharecroppers were recruited for the study with the offer of free medical care, meals, and burial insurance.  Told they were being treated for “bad blood,” they were in fact being studied over time for the natural progression of untreated syphilis, with which some two-thirds of them were infected.  These men were human guinea pigs and the experiment continued even after penicillin proved effective in treating the disease, ending only when exposed by a whistleblower in 1972.  By then, 28 of the men had died of syphilis, and 100 of related complications.  Today, even though we are often horrified by what the Middle Ages did in the name of religion, we often ignore equally monstrous deeds committed in the name of science.

File:Tuskegee syphilis experiment venipuncture.jpg
Here we see it: a white staffer injecting a black sharecropper, all in the name of science.

         What does this digression on the Tuskegee experiment have to do with mummies?  It simply reinforces the awareness that, in the name of science, we are often blind to the ethical aspects of what we do.  It’s okay to unwrap mummies and display them to the public; respect for the dead – in this case, the dead of an ancient civilization that long preceded us -- is deemed irrelevant.  How future civilizations will look back at our own and judge it, I dare not contemplate.  But I don’t anticipate visiting the mummies at the American Museum of Natural History, though I’m sure that hordes are flocking there already.

         Our attitude toward mummies relates to our ambivalent attitude toward the dead, which I discuss at greater length in my award-winning work of nonfiction, No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (see below).  This selection of posts from this blog discusses “spooks and ghouls” in one chapter, and resurrectionists (grave robbers), funerals, and related horrors in another.  Halloween, the Mexican Day of the dead and its grotesque Grande Dame of Death, and the Doctors’ Riot of 1788 get a good working over, as well as body snatching (it still happens), including a lurid 1846 trial, American funeral customs and, to be sure, mummies.  All of which makes for a tasty read.

          BROWDERBOOKS:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City."  If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.


         For six LibraryThing prepublication reviews of Bill Hope: His Story, go here and scroll down.

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client.  Gay romance, if you like, but women have read it and reviewed it.  For Goodreads reviews, go here.  Likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Coming soon:  Martin Shkreli, financial whiz kid or fraudster?  The boy wonder appears at last in court for trial.  If his name doesn't ring a bell, it will.  He's a master at ringing bells.

©   2017   Clifford Browder

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