Digital Review: Performing Archive: Curtis + “the vanishing race”

Screen capture of Performing Archive: Curtis + “the vanishing race,” taken 2020

Performing Archive: Curtis + “the vanishing race”. Created and maintained by Claremont Center for Digital Humanities. Reviewed February 2020.

The Performing Archive: Curtis + “the vanishing race” project emerged in 2018 with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This project serves as a digital archive for the photographic works of Edward S. Curtis, and as a virtual exhibit space for work that responds to Curtis’ exploitation of Native American tribes. This interpretive work questions concepts of permission and consent for the Native peoples in question and serves as a meta commentary on the digital humanities.

The site features over 2,500 digitized archival items from seven institutions. Users can search these items using keywords or use the site’s visualization tool to explore how items interconnect with one another. These tools are immediately accessible, but the site’s layout encourages users to read the “Introduction” page before embarking on their personalized journey. The “Introduction” page gives an overview of the project’s background and goals, then details how to use the site most effectively. While you can search at any time, there are “paths” that lead to different items and exhibits. The user is put on a pre-set path through a few exhibits, putting the most critical and contextual work first. By clicking on the links inside the exhibit texts, the user can deviate from the set path to explore new items and interpretive pieces. This method exploration allows the user to dive a bit deeper into the incredible volume of content available within this project.

This site’s content is extensive because the creators have allowed the public to contribute their research and interpretation of Curtis’ work using a review process to control what occupies their site. These interpretive pieces can be found using the visualization tool and the search bar, leading to topics from YouTube to Curtis’ conceptions of race. If a user isn’t quite ready to publish their own research, they can use the comments function to give feedback and input without investing as much time as engaging in original research. In these ways, the project welcomes all people to become a part of this project. The site also features resources for working with Native stakeholders, and plans to contact Native peoples for future work, emphasizing the need for their input and consent in projects dealing in Native history. By showing their practices clearly, the project welcomes Native users, reassuring them that while Curtis was exploitative, modern creators and historians can and should be better. This project certainly acheives these goals.

Performing Archive: Curtis + “the vanishing race” is completely transparent in their methodology, which preserves the trustworthy image of this initiative. The design and methods are incredibly strong, with the only drawback to the site being the visualization tool’s loading time, which at worst can take over a minute. The user can choose how they want to interact and contribute, which is a huge plus for engagement. This type of project has no equivalent in the physical world, making use of online tools for increased engagement and thoughtful interpretation. Performing Archive: Curtis + “the vanishing race” serves as proof of what Digital Humanities at its best is capable of.

Digital Review: Wearing Gay History

Wearing Gay History. Created and maintained by Eric Gonzaba and Amanda Regan, Reviewed Jan. 2020.

The Wearing Gay History project is self-described as “A Digital Archive of Historical LGBT T-Shirts,” hosting the queer t-shirt collections of 14 different American archives. The digital archive contains shirts from the last 40 years of queer history, and showcases them using Omeka, a platform friendly to digital archiving. The website puts LGBT history in context with itself, defeating coastal biases and exhibiting the diversity of the queer community.

The site features over 4000 items that have been divided into 21 collections based on their origin. Users can search the items by a list of preset tags, by collection, or by detailed search using keywords, locations, and other signifiers. The images are not uniform in background color or mannequin, but these details don’t detract from the cohesiveness of the archive. The metadata includes a description of the creator, date, place of origin, subject, and a few other fields. Each item includes a citation and information about copyright, which is a great help for those wanting to refer to these t-shirts in their work.

The site also includes interpretation of its collections in the form of digital exhibits. These exhibits use the digitized t-shirts to inform about queer history by placing these shirts in context. Many of these shirts require context that non-experts don’t understand without explanation. The page “The Ones that Laughed: Humor in the LGBT Community” explains the necessary context of humorous t-shirts. For example, a t-shirt reading “Homo-Depot” is a play on a scandal involving the department store Home-Depot. The site uses this t-shirt to inform its audience about the history of anti-LGBT workplace policies during the 21st century .

The goals listed on the “About” tab are congruent with the digital products featured on the site. To counter bicoastal  bias, the site includes a t-shirt map  that shows that the bulk of the digital archive comes from inland. To examine the connection between distinct identities is the site uses a tag system, many items having multiple tags which span across differing identities. The goal of increasing visibility for small archives is met by the map as well, shirts grouped according to their archive of origin. Making these collections accessible to the public, this site brings queer history to the forefront  of public consciousness. The site shows commitment to education by linking to other digital resources about the queer community, including articles and other digital archives.

While the site does well to reach the goals its set out, navigation and inclusivity serve as minor issues. While the tag system is helpful, the map is accessible, and there is a means of searching the shirts, the search feature is a bit intimidating, containing many fields that have little use for the non-expert. Additionally, this archive isn’t inclusive of many queer identities that have developed more recently. While the archive includes many examples of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender t-shirts, it excludes (though not intentionally) the other identities that the expanded LGBTQIA+ features. Because, these identities are only beginning to gain visibility, it’s understandable that this archive of the past 40 years of queer history would face difficulty keeping finding materials representing all identities.

In all, this digital archive achieves its many goals through its diversity of materials, interpretation, and ease of use. This archive has clearly been curated by queer historians with a queer audience in mind. It uplifts the queer community, and makes often forgotten tales available at your fingertips.

The Tejano Monument is a Cop-Out, and Here’s Why

After reading a Publicly Historians blog post by my colleague Gabriel Cohen, I knew that if I ever just so happened to be in Austin, Texas, and hanging around the capitol building, I may as well take a gander at the Tejano Monument. I didn’t think I’d meet those conditions during the Fall of 2018, but lo and behold, I did. And I have a few things to say about it.

A Few Things to Note

The Tejano Monument is well-deserved, and I’m glad that it exists– don’t get it twisted on that account. Representation is important, and Tejanos are the foundation of Texas. Credit should be given where credit is due, and I think we have quite enough Civil War statues. It’s shameful that we waited so long to give the measliest credit to the true pioneers that settled Texas long before any anglos set foot in what is now the Lone Star State. What I don’t appreciate is the manner that it was executed, and although this is common practice, it undercuts what should be a huge celebration.

The Passive Voice

Using passive voice when describing historical events doesn’t always make the parties involved or happenings unclear. We know what happened, and we know who did what simply because we are able to infer using the information provided and our prior knowledge in most cases. Passive voice does not turn history into gibberish, but it lets the speaker get away without admitting fault. That is exactly what the five plaques at the Tejano Monument does.

“…resulting in injustice and violence, and many experienced the loss of their lands.” I wonder who took their lands?

On the five plaques that accompany the statues of the monument, it seems that misfortune befalls the Tejanos as the anglo settlers arrive. They lose their land, “injustice and violence” happen, and rebellions break out for some reason that I just can’t place. I can’t help but wonder who was instigating this violence, taking the land, creating the injustice. Who were the Tejanos rebelling against? I don’t think anyone genuinely doesn’t know who was doing all of this, but I can’t help but think modern Texans should own up to it.

Anglo settlers stole the land of Tejanos. Anglo settlers subjugated Tejanos. Anglo settlers created gaps in equality that we are still atoning for to this very day. “Tejanos and Texans in the U.S.” reads “At times, change came too fast for Tejanos…” Yeah, that’s putting it lightly.

The Takeaway

You do not atone for historical injustice until you admit that what happened was wrong. Modern Texas is not built on the ideal of an equitable society, it is built on the backs the Tejanos that had everything ripped from them, including their humanity. To heal our society in all cases, we have to look back and try to understand what happened– who reaped the benefits, and who those benefits were snatched from. Someone has to say it, and it is painfully clear that our state monuments won’t.

Fluxus: A Recipe for Art

Traditionally, the common person explores art through experimentation and schooling– one may take an art class in high school, or draw in the margins of their notebooks during a less than engaging lecture. What if, instead, you could read a recipe for art, and create art based on what was written? If you did, this would be called Fluxus.

The Fluxus movement took place from the last dregs of the 50’s to the late 70’s, primarily in New York City, and was facilitated by artists that believed fine art belonged to everyone. Museums and art dealers had made art a subject for the elites, only those with “good taste” and “finer sensibilities”. What resulted was an art movement for the masses, the viewer being encouraged to participate in the enactment of the art. A Fluxus artwork commonly had an “event score” which dictated what the individual or group should do in order to create a specific piece (though chance and spontaneity were also encouraged). There was no single method for creating Fluxus art, and its goal was to make art accessible to anyone, experienced and created by any common person.

Mieko Shiomi. Event for the Midday (In the Sunlight). 1963. Event Score.

The fun came to an end with the death of the Fluxus movement leader, George Maciunas. His “Fluxfuneral” was marked by several Fluxus performances, and a “Fluxfeast and Wake”, in which all food was purple, black, and white– very fitting. Fluxus was intended to be avant-garde, subversive, and even silly at times. It’s abrupt end begs the question– What would Fluxus look like in today’s world?

There is still art created using a type of event score– art created by Artificial Intelligence. One particular work, “Edmond de Belamy, from La Famille de Belamy” made the news as a work of art created by AI and signed with the algorithm used to produce the final image, the technology for which has been around since 2015. This particular work was created by a machine imitating thousands of portraits over several centuries. The event score is the algorithm, but is this art? Is the algorithm the artist, or are the programmers the artists? And just as importantly, does the AI creation of art grow the chasm between fine art and the common person, or does it make art more accessible to everyone?

Personally, the traditional style of Fluxus speaks more to me– the idea of anyone at all picking up a recipe for art and making it. Whether it be pouring water into a Tuba as its being played, or arranging for a public viewing of a “No Smoking” sign (both of which have event scores), Fluxus encourages us to interact with the people around us, and do outlandishly silly things for the sake of the performance. That, I can appreciate. To learn more about Fluxus in a lovely video format, check out the Art Assignment’s video on the topic, and I challenge you to perform one Fluxus artwork from this Fluxus Performance Workbook. Let me know in the comments which artwork you chose!

Thoughts from the Hockley Cemetery Clean-Up

Everett Fly and Community Members

The Saturday of October 13th, many members of the Bexar community rose early made their way to Northern Hills Elementary School not to brush up on their multiplication and long division, but to clear the cemetery that lay just behind it, over 100 years old. Had a member of the surrounding neighborhood not been curious about the land– surrounded by housing and development on all sides- the historic cemetery may have laid in atrophy for further decades, and its history may have been lost to us all.

The land on which the cemetery lies was first purchased by Jane Warren, a freed slave, in 1873. In 1908, she set aside 1.2 acres of land for the Hockley Cemetery, and that is where it rests to this day. So, then, how did this historic site fall into such overgrowth and disrepair?

The 107 acres Warren had accumulated in addition the cemetery was willed to her four sons. Much of the land found its way into the hands of other community members, and back again. Esther Hockley Clay was the final owner of the cemetery, and passed away in 1982. At that point the historic site was up in the air, the Hockley family members apprehensive about claiming the land for fear of high taxes that they may not have been able to pay, unaware that cemeteries are exempt from these taxes. And thus, the one to claim the cemetery was nature– grasses, bushes, and brambles covering the land and the precious family members below.

Much of the community surrounding the cemetery was once comprised of freemen, which is part of what makes the site so remarkable. Despite the historic preservation efforts of San Antonio, there has yet to be a rediscovery of an African-American historic site such as this one. It is a rarity not just in Bexar, but in the nation to see a discovery and preservation effort of this sort. This is just one of the many reasons that we must work together as a San Antonio community to rescue this site from its disrepair.

We are currently unsure of how many people are buried in this cemetery, and have but a vague idea of who exactly is buried there. The families of the original settlers of the area maintained much of their family histories, orally and through letters and family trees kept from generation to generation. These documents assisted Everett Fly in his research on the site, working tirelessly to compose the history behind it.

Orange Flag with 63 written on it
Flagging fragments, clearing brush, hauling branches… There was much to do at the Hockley Cemetery

Beyond simply being interesting or relevant to Public History, we must remember that this cemetary houses the remains of loved ones, people who were once parents, sisters, brothers, grandparents. The preservation initiative here goes beyond adding another piece to the San Antonio narrative. The descendants of those buried in the Hockley Cemetery are still alive, and deserve to know where their relatives are buried, and that these relatives are resting peacefully. Uncovering the history of this site will affect the community deeply, many neighbors to the site unaware that something of such weight was only meters away from their home. This lack of awareness is likely what led to so many baseballs, shoes, and trash entering the cemetery from these neighbor’s yards and homes.

The initiative, with the help of UTSA scholars, The San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum (SAAACAM), and many members of the neighborhood and community will continue further into the year. If another volunteer opportunity arises, take the chance to go out and assist however you can, and meet the wonderful people who have taken it upon themselves to restore this piece of history. You won’t regret it.

(Link in regards to Saturday’s efforts)

An Open Letter to Princess Ennigaldi

Princess Ennigaldi-Nanna,

I write you from 2500 years in the future, and though much has changed, and though you are long-dead, I cannot help but feel that you are a kindred spirit to the Public History student, and a role model even now to historians, teachers, and princesses.

It was you who founded the first recorded museum, created the first museum labels, and took care enough to have them translated into three languages of your time (which is more than I can say for some museums in my era). You created this museum as a tool for education, as you were both a priestess and a teacher, in addition to being the princess of Babylon. Museums are much the same now, in that they serve as tools to connect students to history, visually and physically, though access remains an issue (but I’ll delve into that a bit later).

The way that Babylonian society in Ur regarded history is much the same as society in my time regards history– we are self-interested in our own people’s past. A nostalgia and a craze for what once was is pervasive. In some ways, this acts to interest the public in their past, right the wrongs embedded in our history, and create an awareness and appreciation for the progress we’ve made now. In other ways, this longing is dangerous, beckoning some to a return to old values, glorifying the flawed past, and imbuing some with the feeling that we ought to become “Great Again”. A regard for this sort of history was not the downfall of your civilization, but sometimes I ponder if it will be the downfall of mine.

Museums have evolved and changed over time to fit the needs of the many people within a society that can benefit from a museum visit. Artifacts and artworks are no longer part of private collections, rather, they are now open to the public, to view, critique, and reflect on. Much as your father, King Nabonidus embarked to restore and preserve The Great Ziggurat of Ur, we are working in this age to restore and preserve what we find to be meaningful, and worthy of saving.

There will always be dissent about what deserves to be saved, some histories being deemed more important than others, but I think of you as being sympathetic to the histories deemed ‘less important’. Even your tale, a Princess being the first curator of the first museum of her own creation seems often forgotten, in favor of other interpretations, marking the Greeks or Romans as the first to collect and display objects. Even when your museum is within the conversation, it is not uncommon for this work to be attributed to your father, as he was known to be entranced by the history of Ur. (I firmly believe that the work is yours.)

Although there are many more museums in my time than there were in yours, it can be difficult for some to visit museums and satisfy their curiosity. Often, grand museums are too far away or too expensive for the common person to access, putting the best of the artifacts and art out of reach for low-income students and families. Just as you do, I see museums as beneficial to education and inspiration. For that reason, I hope that access improves, financially, physically, and linguistically.

I found you through curiosity, as little is truly known about you, or your first museum– only what was rediscovered by Leonard Woolley in 1922. Perhaps it is very human to collect, analyze, and showcase artifacts in a particular space. I think, at the very least, that innate curiosity exists thousands of years apart, coded into our DNA.

And so this is me, remembering you, and asking for a priestess’ blessing in my Public History endeavors.

All the Best,

What Are These Things, and Why?

If I were to ask you what your favorite piece of art is, who your your favorite artist may be, what would you say? Maybe Van Gogh or Da Vinci? Andy Warhol? Or how about if I asked you what type of art fascinated you the most? Would you say something like cubism, pointilism, or some form of abstraction? (Feel free to answer in the comments, by the way)

The form of art that perplexes me the most is that of ancient sculpture, more specifically humanoid figures carved from the Paleolithic Period to the Bronze Age. When I look at their vague or deformed bodies, carved out of marble, bones, and stones, I’m dumbstruck as to what these figures were created to do, and historians are no better off.

Venus Figures

From the Paleolithic Period or ‘Old Stone Age’, there are hundreds of ‘Venus Figures’ thought to be representative of fertility or good fortune– at least that’s historians’ best guess. The proportions of these figures are quite overblown, the stomach and breasts being far larger than the tiny feet or hands. The Venus of Willendorf is one of the best known of these figures, pictured

The Venus of Willendorf
25,000 BCE
left. The name of the figures is often disputed, as they may not be representative of love or fertility at all, as we have no way to know. Calling it a ‘Venus’ in that case, wouldn’t be fitting.

Perhaps these figures were charms, as some lacked a head, instead having a loop. Perhaps they could then be worn around one’s neck or waist. An example of this sort of design is the Venus of Hohle Fels, pictured right. This work is the oldest of the Venus figures, at 35,000 years old, the second known sculpture of representative man-made art.

“Venus of Hohle Fels” Credit: H. Jensen

But… why? What inspired ancient humans to create this type of art? Did they know that it was art? The agricultural revolution had yet to happen, meaning we still existed as hunter-getherers, roaming the plains. Life was by no means easy or sedentary, yet some old someone thought it was an important use of time and resources to produce this type of work. It’s easy to love those tenacious early humans. They had zest.

Female Cycladic Figures

Okay, so fast forward 25,000 years to the Mediterranean Sea. The Cycladic Islands, or Cyclades are over 200 small islands near both Greece and Turkey, evidenced to have interacted with Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations. Among the early figures carved of women, The Cycladic Figures are unique in that their simplicity acts as a sign of maturity, rather than being the result of primitive technology. Most of these figures are carved of marble, using obsidian as the paring tool. Like the venus figures, there are hundreds of these gals.

The viewer is able to locate simple legs, arms, breasts, and a nose. Other details such as jewelry or facial features would have been added after carving, through the use of paints. The feet are always pointed, making it impossible for the figures to stand on their own. The San Antonio Museum of Modern Art has one in their possesion, if you’d like to examine one in person.

“Female Figure” from the SAMA 2700-2200 BCE

Despite their abundance and singular origin, these figures are a mystery as well, found in tombs, shrines, and homes. The justifications for these figures are often chalked up to the same reasonings as the Venus figures– fertility, protection, etc.

Interesting to note about the Cycladic Figures, there was once a craze for Cycladic Art that led to grave robbings and figures being ill-gotten. It is unsurprising that the SAMA would have one of these figures in its collection, but it makes one curious as to how this figure was acquired, though it was donated by a private individual. That may well remain just as much of a mystery.

So… do you love these figures yet? Are they strange to you? Are they super-boring stuffy old art? It’s interesting to ponder when we decided as a species to create things in our image, or abstracted, in an imaginary image. What is the origin of art? What do you think?

Is a Culturally Specific Museum Just Another Box?

When it comes to museum exhibits and collections, diversity is not always key — in one sense of the word. While it is important that we see all groups have a space to explore their history and identity among peers and the rest of the public, the most effective collections are not always a mix of many different art pieces or artifacts from all over the globe. Many times, ephemera of the same or similar origin will be displayed together in order to show a more thorough and cohesive story of a particular culture. However, when we select one identity to be the basis of our exhibit and museum construction, are we actually placing these groups into a box, or miniaturizing their personhood in order to emphasize just one of their many idenitities? Are culturally specific museums a good thing?

Reader, if I asked you to describe yourself as a person, what would you start with? Would you say that you are an American? That you are Catholic, or Jewish, or Muslim? Or would you say that you enjoy sports, or reading history blogs? Most of all, would you say just one of these things, and stop there? That is where some Culturally Specific museums and exhibits fall short. By supporting a familiar narrative about a particular group, the museum-goer doesn’t come away with anything they didn’t already bring with them.

However, when a Culturally Specific museum is done well, it can show the diversity and complexity of both history and identity that a group can have. One particular Museum that I feel does this well is the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. By presenting the many talents and identities encompassed within being Jewish, we are able to have a conversation about how the identity has changed, and shaped around the modern era. The CJM is not just for Jewish people, it is for all people to learn and be able to converse intelligently about what they may not have known, or simply may have assumed.

Maximilíano Durón writes that “cultural institutions are social institutions”, and I wholly believe this to be true. When we are able to walk into a museum and explore an identity that we do not apply to ourselves, our understanding and empathy for other human beings expands, and our minds can begin to conceive of what it may be like to exist as this other person, with their other identity. Even when something appears uncomfortable to the viewer, or controversial, we are able to ask why this artifact or display causes us discomfort, or why we don’t talk more freely about its subject matter.

All this to say, the Culturally Specific museum is able to both close our minds and open them, put us in boxes and allow us to escape them. It is up to the many hard-working museum staff and organizers that we see liberation rather than shackles. As for whether or not the Culturally Specific museum is just another box to put people in? It doesn’t have to be.

Art Theft: A Crime as Old as Art Itself

When one imagines the theft of a painting or sculpture worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions, what comes to mind is a spicy affair — involving at least one super spy, an alarm system hacker, and getaway driver, just to start. But even the most high profile art theft of all time, the theft of da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” in 1911 wasn’t much more than an employee stuffing the darn thing/priceless artifact into his smock (More deets here). It was easier then than it is now, of this much I’m sure, but every year it seems that the FBI’s National Stolen Art File only grows in size. This much is a shame, sure, but what if I told you that reputable museums deal in stolen art all the time?

Initially, it may seem hard to believe that institutions like that of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, affectionately dubbed ‘The Met’ would involve themselves in a seedy criminal underbelly to score some sketchy art, but it is far more common than one would think. Often, it is difficult to track the origin of an artifact, some 85-90 percent of the artifacts on the market being without provenance, making it difficult to discern if something was once stolen, or far more commonly, looted. Sure, something as popular as the Mona Lisa is too high profile to pawn off on an unsuspecting museum or private collection acquisitions team (this actually being an issue for many art thieves), but what of far older artifacts from civilizations long ago? Their long-dead creators surely are not on the hunt for their stolen work, but more recently, the practice of ‘repatriation’ has allowed the cultures that have been utterly looted to regain what is theirs.

Repatriation‘ describes the act of a person returning to their country of origin, making it a form of homecoming. In the world of museums and artifacts, this word was repurposed by historians and curators to describe the act of willfully returning a stolen or looted item to its home, wherever that may be, after learning that it was ill-begotten. If that is the case, you may be wondering how so many American ‘Universal Museums’ have such extensive foreign collections, including whole mummies and precious Japanese ceramics. Simply put, this is because there are no real guidelines for repatriating objects or determining whether they should be returned at all. Much of this is on the honor system, reporting to The International Council of Museums when something “seems fishy”, though one could just as easily grow a collection without giving responsible acquisition a second thought.

Coutesy of The Met, Cambodian Statue recently repatriated

Ethically, there is much debate about whether artifacts should be repatriated at all, as it can be difficult to say that particular items belong to a culture. Should we not all have the capability to take pleasure in looking at artifacts from overseas and long ago? Simply put, it’s complicated, and for that reason repatriation is considered on a case by case basis. Do all of the nine trillion Roman marble statues need to be returned to Italy? Perhaps not. Does one of the only nine Cambodian statues from Prasat Chen need to be returned? I’d wager that’s a yes. (And it is, LOOK!).

All this to say, it can be difficult to discern which public a history or historical artifact actually ‘belongs’ to, as legally and ethically, there is very little groundwork for this. Art theft isn’t just a glamorous crime for trade in the millions, it’s a sadly long-standing tradition of our culture of colonization.

A Life After Death: Mummy Brown

Every artist’s palette is quite different — some use just the basics: the primary colors, ivory black and titanium white. Others prefer a wider array — burnt umber, phthalo green, cadmium orange… These days the most varied and brilliant of pigments can be emulated artificially, though it hasn’t always been this way. Paints were once made up of precious stones, minerals, animal products, and really anything with any sort of color to it. Many artists STILL use their bodily fluids as pigment in their work, though its effectiveness in pigmentation is questionable. However, of the ancient paint ingredients, there is one whose usage is most harrowing… and horrifying! This pigment is Mummy Brown. Just as the name would suggest, this particular pigment was made from the finely ground remains of ancient Egyptians.

Before the Art

As one may surmise, the journey to using human remains as art materials did not begin with a long-dead painter shouting ‘Eureka!’ and calling their local archaeologist. Rather, people falsely believed that mummies were embalmed using bitumen, or asphalt, as we more commonly call it. Bitumen was believed to have medicinal properties, though scarcity of supply led 12th century Europeans to use ground mummies to cure anything from a stomach ache to chicken pox. In addition to allegedly containing bitumen, many believed that mummies had magical preservation properties, and helped to spread the belief that ‘life energy’ can be consumed from the flesh of animals or other human beings.

The mummy trade proved to be quite lucrative, though just like bitumen, Egyptian mummies were in limited supply. This led to freshly dead corpses being mummified and ground for use in medicine, some even being specifically prescribed. To think that we were cannibalizing each other as recently as the 1800s!

The Leap to Paint

Just as many other medicines became paint pigments, mummy brown quickly followed suit. The ground flesh produced a rust-like translucent color that many artists revered (though some reported it as cracking or fading easily). One mummy could produce a fair amount of paint, lasting one merchant twenty years of sales. Though, it is difficult for historians to discern just how popular mummy brown was, as testing paint samples has proven futile, due to the large array of recipes that passed for ‘mummy brown’. There was a large amount of discourse about the pigment as its use entered the 1900s, expressed through journals and fiction. It is also apparent that the origin of mummy brown was lost over time, some artists appalled when discovering that mummy brown was comprised of real mummy (namely Edward Burne-Jones) going so far as to bury tubes of the pigment in mourning.

A genuine tube of Mummy Brown. Credit: Forbes Pigment Collection, Harvard Art Museums, R. Leopoldina Torres

After four centuries of regular use, mummy brown no longer circulated, not only because the public was becoming aware of the historical value of mummies, but because there simply weren’t any left to transform into paint. The last tube was sold in 1964, surprisingly recent by most standards. An artist today wouldn’t have much luck finding a real tube of Mummy, though I’m sure there are tubes waiting patiently on the black market.

The Public History Perspective

Had past generations realized the value of intact mummies, perhaps they would not have eaten or painted with them, just as today we would not consume the artifacts that populate our museums. Had the public of the time been educated in the true value of their medicines and paints, a tube would have sold for more than three euros, a laughable trade for the fruits of three millennia. The recency of Mummy Brown’s discontinuation is also a testament to how recently our value for history has come into vogue. It is my hope that the people of today avoid another Mummy Brown, and put thought into what they consume and trade. Though, in some ways, the ancient Egyptians lost to this fad have been immortalized in galleries all over the world.