Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
thesis_access.pdf (280.16 kB)

The Mummy's Complaint: An Object-Biography of the Egyptian Mummies in New Zealand Museums, 1885-1897

Download (280.16 kB)
posted on 2021-11-13, 22:58 authored by Brown-Haysom, Ryan

Recent years have seen a revival of interest in material objects in the humanities generally, and in Museum Studies in particular. Although the influence of this 'material turn' is still in its early stages, one of the manifestations of the renewed interest in the 'life of things' has been the growth of interest in Actor-Network Theory, a branch of sociological analysis which attempts to reconstruct the networks of agency through which social existence is created and maintained. One of the more controversial aspects of Actor-Network Theory (or ANT) is its willingness to concede a level of agency to non-human and inanimate actors in these 'assemblages'. For Museum Studies, the relevance of this theoretical framework lies in the analysis of museums both as assemblages in their own right, and as actants in a network of other sites, institutions, technologies, ideologies, and objects. Museum objects, long viewed as inert, can be seen instead as participants in the 'shuffle of agency' that constitutes institutions and inducts them into wider patterns of social activity.  This dissertation uses the case study of Egyptian mummies in New Zealand museums to gauge the usefulness of an ANT-based approach to writing the 'life-history of objects'. Borrowing the concept of the 'object biography' from Kopytoff and Appadurai, it attempts to construct such a history of the five complete Egyptian mummies in New Zealand’s public museums. Using the principles of Actor-Network Theory, it attempts to trace the ways in which mummies have been constituted as 'meaningful objects' through the examination of the ways in which they have moved through different assemblages, both globally and within New Zealand, during the twelve years from 1885 to 1897. This was the period during which all five Egyptian mummies entered New Zealand collections, traversing networks of imperialism, scientific knowledge, religious knowledge, and exchange. In the course of their movement through these diverse assemblages, the meaning of mummies – inside and outside the public museum – could be construed in radically different ways.  This dissertation considers the usefulness of such a methodology for Museum Studies and Material Culture Studies, and considers the potential benefits and pitfalls of writing about assemblages for those who want to consider the life-history of objects.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Museum and Heritage Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Museum and Heritage Studies

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970121 Expanding Knowledge in History and Archaeology

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies


McCarthy, Conal