‘death: the human experience’ at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Despite being a bold title ‘death: the human experience’, in all of the exhibition’s branding, omits the use of capital letters. Perhaps this is a nod towards the universal nature of death and its (nonhierarchical) relevance, which is very much the focus of the exhibition. ‘All eligible, everyone welcome’ a further subheading might read. Alternatively, it is an invitation to review the word ‘death’ without the established connotations that accompany known and capitalised nouns; familiarity is dismantled and interpretation is set free. There is certainly the sense of the open-ended and unresolved to this exhibition, compelling to an extent, but at times leaving me floundering.

The exhibition contemplates five key human experiences of death, each with its own space and display style: symbols of death, stages of death, attitudes to death, human remains and science and ethics. It is a comprehensive survey, objects and images relating to every aspect of the subject are presented alongside engaging interactive features and a selection of thought-provoking quotes. The curators have been careful to warn visitors about the sensitive nature of the exhibits and I am gently informed as I enter that there are human remains in one room that I might choose to avoid if I wish.

Such is the presence of death in society that metaphor and connotation are unavoidable, but maybe this one should have been avoided… Walking into the first, corridor-shaped room of the exhibition is like entering a huge and gaudy coffin. Luxurious pink material drapes from the walls with a pronounced but distracting opulence. In front of this magenta mass, exhibited in glass-domed displays are objects symbolic of death: a taxidermy vulture, a funeral wreath of white lilies, the fragile orange and brown frame of a Death’s-Head Hawk Moth and the exquisite, delicate skeleton of a small Horseshoe Bat. Here, and throughout the other rooms, the exhibits range from recognisable articles, commonplace in British mourning ritual, to the more obscure and unfamiliar objects of other cultures and ages.

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One glass cabinet of familiar objects catches my eye and I am met with an array of traditional and popular ‘grave goods’ that are left with the dead in British burials. Cigarettes, jewelry, mint imperials, letters from loved ones, dancing shoes and other favourite items are among the displayed, together with a mobile phone. I am intrigued and slightly unsettled to read the accompanying quote:

‘Requests for mobile phones to be added to the coffin are common, and often come with a comment about “at least they can get in touch if they aren’t dead”. I hear this fear in a lot of my work. The phone is a bit like the Victorians putting a bell in family mausoleums, just in case. I have had families who make sure it is fully charged so it will last as long as possible and regularly text the phone after burial.’ (Su Chard, independent celebrant, 2015)

As someone wary of the most escapable of enclosed spaces, the thought of being buried underground unnerves me to say the least. There is also a poignant sense of futility to this tender, almost hopeful act. In my opinion, highlighting these very personal and very human responses to death are where the exhibition is most successful. It poses the question to the viewer, about what we would wish for our own death and burial. How do others see us, and how might this be summarised in the objects left with us when we die?

One further explanation for the title’s lowercase type is the associations it has with learning. When a child first encounters the alphabet they begin with the simplest form of letters possible and build on their understanding from there. It makes sense to assume from the information describing some of the artifacts, that the intention of the curators was to present a simple and essential insight into death. One caption, positioned alongside a small model of a black hearse, reads:

“A hearse represents death and funerary rituals because it’s seen at the time of a funeral. Even an empty hearse is associated with death”.

It is at points such as this within the exhibition, that it feels necessary to question the purpose of museums and the intentions with which they display their artifacts. Aside from collecting and cataloguing, the most obvious function of the museum is to impart knowledge; while this display is certainly educational, it is with a sense of something lacking. As many of our Cafe Morte members make work involving found and made objects, the notion of conceiving death through tangible artifacts seems very relevant to our collective research. Our upcoming show ‘Lost for Words’ could likewise be titled ‘death: the human experience’ and we are likewise exhibiting objects and images with a broad and encompassing scope on the topic of death. However, where I feel art may have more of an emotional and meaningful impact is the freedom it allows viewers to interpret the matter with their own sensitivities and experiences. Where the museum is informative to the point of being problematic, the art exhibition illuminates with the bounds of the viewer’s imagination as its only limit.

death: ‘the human experience’ website

Author- Jess Russell (Café Morte)

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