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.  Death: The Human Experience review
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.

Cardboard coffin
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.
Death head moth
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.
Plague doctor mask
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".
When does death start
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?
Mortuary table
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.
Chinese Funeral Death Money
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.
Victorian mourning dress
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. A fantastic way to foster conversations around the subject and, hopefully, one of many future exhibitions along the same lines. 

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  1. I'm so glad you posted the link to the exhibition! I will definitely check it out! Death is such a fascinating topic since everyone has an opinion on what happens but no one literally knows! As a former Catholic turned Agnostic or Atheist depending on the day, I'm even more intrigued on what happens. The physical and mental aspects of dying but I promise I'm not a weirdo!

  2. I loved reading this post Becky - I'm really interested in death too and would have loved to go to the exhibition!

    Jess xo | The Indigo Hours

  3. This was a great post! I'm absolutely fascinated with all this stuff and the social and historical practices - I would have loved to have gone

  4. This looks fascinating :) I will have to keep an eye out for future exhibitions.

    Dannie x

  5. This sounds like such an amazing and fascinating exhibition, death is something that has scared me yet had me filled with awe for my entire life. I got to see a couple of Autopsies in my final year of university and since then death has been something I've wanted to talk more openly about and learn more about how other cultures deal with it and such. I wish I'd had chance to see this exhibit!
    Kloe xx

  6. Ah this sounds brilliant, and I especially find history interesting. A few months back I had been to a gin tasting session, and we learnt all about the plague doctors wearing masks filled with juniper as they believed this would prevent them from being ill. It's basically how gin came about being a popular drink as people thought it would help them avoid illness!

    Amazing, right?! :) Love the post!


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