Richard Smith: Gawping at death

richard_smith_2014Around 4000 people a day visit El Museo De Las Momias (The Mummy Museum) in Guanjuato, making it one of the most popular tourist sites in Mexico. Some queue for an hour or more. Why do they go? Why did I go with my family?

The museum contains about 100 mummies. These are not mummies wrapped in bandages but desiccated corpses with skin, hair, teeth, wounds, and the remnants of clothes. Most look as if they are in agony with their mouths screaming. Their look is probably caused by the processes of death rather than agony, but the museum speculates proudly about one woman being buried alive because her catalepsy was misdiagnosed as death. Several of the corpses have been identified, including the French doctor Remigio Leroy, who was the first exhibit in the museum in 1865 and is still the first mummy you see.

The mummies are mostly upright in rows in glass cases. They look like a ragged army. They are beautifully and chillingly lit, and the whole display could be transferred straight to Tate Modern.

I must confess that I wondered if the mummies were fake: they looked as if they could be made from papier mâché—and around the town you can see copies of the mummies that are not that different from the ones in the museum. But they are undoubtedly real. Mummification of some bodies happens naturally when they are kept above ground in the dry air of Guanajuato, although there is evidence that some of the bodies were embalmed.

The museum came about because the town introduced a tax that relatives had to pay to keep the bodies in the cemetery. Some relatives declined to pay (or were too poor), and the bodies were disinterred. Those that were mummies were stored, and cemetery workers discovered that people would pay to see the mummies. The town soon realised the business possibilities and created the museum. Adults pay 67 pesos (about £2.50) to enter the museum, and the annual income must be over 50m pesos (around £2m). In addition, many people travel to Guanajuato to see the museum, and the museum is ringed by shops selling souvenirs, including mummy sweets.

I was not surprised to find that the Daily Mail with its talent for macabre stories that titillate its readers has discovered the museum. With its usual bent towards self-righteous moralising the Daily Mail asks “Is this the world’s most shocking museum?” and suggests (as I have too) that the town is more motivated by money than culture; but, surprise, surprise, the story includes many pictures and is delighted that in the film El Santo vs The Mummies of Guanajuato, Mexico’s leading wrestler takes on the mummies as they come to life. A town spokesperson told the Mail: ‘”We have a different cultural approach to death in Mexico, here we celebrate the cycle of life and accept death as inevitable. 99% of the visitors leave the experience pleased with what they saw.”

One famous visitor who was not pleased, although he was rewarded, was the writer Ray Bradbury. He wrote: “The experience so wounded and terrified me, I could hardly wait to flee Mexico. I had nightmares about dying and having to remain in the halls of the dead with those propped and wired bodies. In order to purge my terror, instantly, I wrote The Next in Line. One of the few times that an experience yielded results almost on the spot.”

It didn’t seem to me, however, that that was the experience of many of the visitors. As the town spokesman said, most seem pleased, and most of the visitors had their children with them. We too were pleased with what we saw. It was an interesting and unusual experience. We were also pleased with our visit to the town’s impressive museum and to house where Diego Rivera was born, but those museums had nowhere near as many visitors as El Museo De Las Momias.

Although it’s true that death is central to Mexican culture, I find it hard to believe that many of the visitors were there to contemplate the role of death in their culture and their own mortality. Rather they went with the same motives that take people to horror movies or cause people to slow down when driving past an accident.

Perhaps every town might throw open its mortuary and let people gawp at the recently dead. And I wondered how many people would turn up to watch public executions. Certainly they were popular in medieval Britain.

Does it matter that these corpses are displayed for all to see without the people they once were ever giving their consent? I can’t think it does, but people are there for a thrill rather than deepened understanding of death; and I was too.

Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004.