Sunday, 17 January 2016

Death: The Human Experience Bristol City Museum

So, I finally made it there and this is a review I wrote.

In a week which saw the death of not just the most influential musician and cultural icon of the last 45 years, but also one of our greatest, best-loved actors, it felt like an appropriate time to visit the current exhibition at Bristol City Museum, entitled Death: The Human Experience.


This comprehensive exhibition features five sections based on key human experiences of death - symbols of death; stages of death; attitudes to death; human remains; and science and ethics – and includes hundreds of objects and images relating to each aspect from different cultures around the world.  These range from the familiarity of a stuffed crow, a wreath of lilies, and a porcelain mortuary table from the former Bristol General Hospital, to a reconstruction of a mediaeval plague doctor’s mask, a Ghanaian fantasy coffin in the shape of a rather fearsome-looking tiger, a 1900 watercolour copy by archaeologist Adela Breton of a Mayan temple wall painting featuring human sacrifice, and mummified body parts.





These are presented alongside interactive features, such as the (variable) point at which one might be considered dead, and a series of quotes, including Mark Twain’s rather jaunty assertion, ‘I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.’

Rather surprisingly, given the breadth of objects on display, the item that had the most effect on me was the first I saw: an X-ray of a (living) skull by Mariele Neudecker, entitled Truth is an Overrated Virtue, which was startling in its fragility. 


I was also intrigued by another exhibit, entitled An Affidavit Certificate, dated April 21st, 1707, Proving that Thomas Mathew was Buried in Wool, which shows the said Bristolian Thomas's burial preference, as follows:

'These are to certifie that the body of Thomas Matthews lately de interred in the parifhe of St Nicolas was not put in, wrapt, wound up or in any shurt, shift, sheet or shroud, made or mingled with flax, hemp, silk, hair, gold, silver or other then what is made of sheeps woll only, or in any coffin lined or faced with any cloth stuff or any other thing what so ever made or mingled with flax, hemp, silk, hair, gold or silver or any other material but sheeps woll only The truth where of attefted by ………… as well by their hands and seals herunto selt and subfcribed as by their refpective oaths taken before me.. one of.... majifties Iuftices of the peace for the.. a fore faid
As witness my hand the 21st day of the April in the 6th year of the reign of the.... over England and c....'


The only minor criticism I have is the tone of some of the information boards which, in their exhortation to visitors to reflect upon their own journey to death, come across as slightly patronising at times.  As it is, I left with an enhanced grasp of the sheer normality of death as the end to which we are all progressing, which shapes our lives and gives them meaning.


The entrance fee for Death: The Human Experience, which runs until 13th March, has been waived, with visitors being encouraged instead to pay what they think it is worth. I hope very much that the museum makes some money out of this excellent and well-attended exhibition. 


All photos ©Bristol City Museum website


No comments:

Post a Comment