Over the past week social media has suddenly been preoccupied with, what we must admit, is one of the strangest crowdfunding projects we've ever seen. The Victor Wynd Museum in Hackney is trying to buy the mummified head of a 1000 year old Peruvian child, for the somewhat bizarre fundraising goal of £6666.00. While it is presented by the Museum in its indigogo page as a bit of good fun, and 'money well spent', we certainly can see some red flags with the whole affair. Does Hackney really need a mummy? And if it does, why should it go to the Victor Wynd Museum? Most importantly, should you give your hard earned cash to Victor Wynd to achieve it? To try and figure it out, we've taken sides for and against. We leave it up to you to decide.
The Victor Wynd Museum opened two years ago with money raised from over 500 contributors. Developed from the artist's original Last Tuesday Society, the Museum combines taxidermy, art and human and animal remains to create its own unique spin on the Cabinet of Curiosities. Since it's inauguration, the Museum has already brought in over 15,000 visitors - a testament to its popularity and the support of the surrounding Hackney Community. Kitted out with a bar and lounging areas, the Museum hosts exhibitions alongside its unique displays. They might have the gold-encrusted rhino skull of Pablo Escobar but what they don't have is a mummy. And why shouldn't they?
As the tag line for the fundraising campaign states, the British Museum has thousands of mummies, so why shouldn't Hackney have just one? Well, I'm sure you've just heard above lots of the reasons why. But the fact of the matter is that small museums like Wynd's play an important role in communities. Small museums might not necessarily follow all of the same standards of display and interpretation of accredited ones, but that doesn't make the engagement they do with their audiences any less important. Death and dying is a central theme of Wynd's displays, and who is to say the only way to present that subject is the way a big museum might? It is perhaps the kinds of people who are put-off by the somewhat old-fashioned institutions who enjoy visiting Wynd's, and shouldn't they have an equal right to engage with mummies?
Let's not forget, museums themselves arose out of the same exhibitionary impulse that resulted in freak shows and even shopping malls. The desire to see and discuss the interesting and unusual is still at the core of what even large accredited museums do - albeit mediated by new professional standards. Also, it's important to point out that while it might be uncomfortable to some people, the Museum isn't doing anything illegal in acquiring the mummy. Human remains over 100 years old and their display are not covered by the Human Tissue Act, and in their fundraising the Museum acknowledges that they need to build a special environmentally controlled case to house their new acquisition. If the idea of putting a price tag on human remains makes you uncomfortable, you have to remember that other museums and collectors are going to be competing to buy this mummified head anyway. If there is an issue with anything, I think the question is why is the Uppsalla Museum selling this mummified head? But seeing as how it is being sold, why shouldn't it be in Hackney?
Sure anus chocolate and whale penis bones aren't the normal sort of membership perks you get from a museum, but they certainly get your attention. If museums, and particularly fundraising officers, are wondering how it is you reach out to young people, they could maybe learn a thing or two from Victor Wynd. 'Millenials' (and you know how much we hate that word) like experiences, different and unique experiences. And participating in this fundraising campaign is certainly one! The recent success of the Eric crowdfunding project at the Science Museum shows people are keen to be involved in museum projects, particularly with prizes on the line. And yet I somehow feel more uncomfortable with a national museum like the Science Museum getting money from the public than a small start up like Victor Wynd which exists almost purely from donations.
Giving money to the campaign is definitely not for everyone. I mean - it takes a specific kind of person to really want to own some mummy dust. But I don't think we can say that's the 'wrong' way to interact with history. If the thought of taking a mummy head home with you floats your boat, or maybe makes you want to learn more about Peruvian mummies, then by all means donate! The crowdfunding is certainly a good way to start some very interesting conversations about humans remains, display and the public.
'Hackney NEEDS a mummy' the words are blasted across the Internet and a big banner campaign in the borough whilst we always support smaller museums is this really an appropriate campaign when talking about the mummified remains of a human child? Museums and Galleries have had a consistent and challenging dialogue regarding the display of human remains over the past twenty years and although the 1000 year old remains do not fall into any murky legal water they do fall into the huge ethical debate about how such objects can be cared for and displayed.
While the Victor Wynd Museum's displays isn't dictated to by DCMS, nor listed as an accredited museum it does not have to adhere to the codes of ethics. However, this is still a publicly accessible space and therefore its display of human remains should remain respectful and responsible with a significant emphasise on its cultural understanding. As you can currently dine on the showcase of other human remains in this museum is there a real respect for the sensitivities of the dead and does this act advance visitors knowledge?
The campaign so far hasn't given much information as to the provenance and history of the object. From some brief research the Chimu people within their belief systems were partial to sacrificing shells and their children to their preferred god - the moon. Doesn't this need to be reflected within the museum's campaign? Isn't it important to discuss this also in the justification of the acquisition like with most other museums? The Wellcome Collection does currently have a mummy on display from this same indigenous group yet their tactics online and in its gallery space are much more sensitive, opening up a dialogue about the display. If the Wellcome can, why can't Victor Wynd?
On an initial look it appears that the Victor Wynd museum is acting out as a spoilt child in their comparisons with other boroughs collections and the crowdfunding campaign is perhaps a bit vulgar in its offerings to donors. For £5 you can have an imaginary kiss and for £30 you can have a pinch of mummy dust from the showcase - ergh what? And for a very generous £2000 you can take the mummy away with you for a night and drive it about in your own car - in this case any consideration for collections care really has gone way out of the window. Asking for £6666 for the mummy the campaign so far has only reach 11% of its backing yet hopes for more to ensure that the museum can buy a fancy climate controlled showcase - but what happens if they don't reach the expanding goal? Do the remains just go into an uncontrolled showcase or really are they asking for something they can achieve without crowdfunding?
There is no doubt that this is a contentious and insensitive ask from the museum. Shouldn't the preservation and interpretation of the collection be core to its campaign to acquire more from your pockets?
In typical Ministry fashion we've argued both sides and hopefully haven't lost our ability to visit Victor Wynd's ( we are big fans of the museum and their talk programmes) but in the name of museum loving controversy we've had our say, now what are your thoughts?