Photos were allowed inside the exhibition but as it was of such a sensitive subject, and because it was very quiet, I chose to take photos more discreetly on my phone rather than use my noisy, bulky DSLR. It goes without saying that some of this material may be triggering. It deals with death and dying in a range of different contexts.
Death: The Human Experience at Bristol Museum
It was only after I visited Bristol in December that I heard about the newest exhibition at Bristol Museum- Death: The Human Experience. I'd intended to visit but, me being me, forgot all about it until I was reminded just a week before it ended. A hasty day trip to Bristol ensued so I was lucky enough to catch it.
Speaking of trigger warnings, the exhibition was behind a glass door with detailed information on the topic clearly displayed. There were also repeated warnings before particularly sensitive areas so it was presented very respectfully and tactfully.
On entering the exhibition, I walked into a corridor that was beautifully draped in purple satin on either side. Aesthetically, this gave a really strong impact but I found some of the exhibits in this first area a little lacking and almost patronising. Each side of the corridor had display cases, framed images and objects to illustrate symbols of death in different religions. These included a toy hearse and a plastic skeleton, and informative gems such as "headstones mark the place where a person is buried" and "a dead body can be seen as the ultimate symbol of death". I also found this area frustrating as it wasn't clearly explained which exhibits were original and which were reproductions. As an example, I was excited to see a plague doctor mask, which we were allowed to touch, but it wasn't clear whether this was a reproduction. I assume it was since it was available to handle but would have appreciated more information on this.
Just as I was feeling disappointed, however, I turned the corner and entered the main gallery. One wall was fashioned to look like a mortuary, which was a really powerful image. Inside each door was a video or information discussing the philosophical question of when death occurs. Experts were interviewed to give their opinion, including doctors and hospice managers, and it was really interesting to hear the different perspectives, especially when it came to issues of a person who is legally and medically still alive but not really "living".
Opposite this wall was a set up of a mortuary and information on how postmortems are carried out. This was really interesting and I learned a lot here. Did you know that the UK has the highest autopsy rate at 25% of all deaths? Or that large mosques often have their own washing areas and freezers to prepare and store bodies?
Moving through the exhibition, it began to discuss how death was perceived in different eras and how it's approached across the world. There were examples of coffins and urns from all corners of the world throughout history, including Chinese money that is especially made for the purpose of burying with the body. This was followed with exhibits that posed questions about death, such as whether the way we think of death is different if the person in question is seen as a "bad" person or whether certain deaths are worse than others.
Towards the end was a display about funeral practises in different cultures, which included Victorian mourning jewellery and gowns- something I'm really interested in. Finally, there was a thought-provoking discussion on whether we should have the right to take our own lives. Again, a range of experts were interviewed to share their opinions and a display case of items used in assisted suicide clinics.
At the very end of the exhibition, there was an enclosed area to be used as a reflection room. Unfortunately there were some fairly loud guys hanging out in here which was a shame as it detracted from the purpose but the staff next to it didn't seem to be bothered.
Despite the weak start, I found the exhibition really powerful and thought-provoking. One of the best things for me was hearing the conversations as I was walking around. I overheard a mum explaining to her 4-year-old that the embalming table wasn't a bath, as they thought, but "more of a sink really". Later, a woman and a teenager, who I took to be her daughter, were discussing her will. I passionately believe that we should be talking about death, rather than keeping it as a taboo subject to be avoided at all costs, and it was so refreshing to see people having open, frank discussions about it.
Although the exhibition has closed now, it's worth checking out Dying Matters if, like me, you believe in people discussing death. You can also view the exhibition online here. A fantastic way to foster conversations around the subject and, hopefully, one of many future exhibitions along the same lines.
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