7 November 2015

An ethnographic tour of ‘death: the human experience’

‘Death: the human experience’, a new temporary exhibition, opened here last week at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.  Showcasing over 200 objects, a quarter of which came from our World Cultures collections, the exhibition is a cross-discipline, cross-cultural look at death and dying.  Starting with the sumptuously eclectic ‘Symbols of death’ corridor, where we display everything from a Dia des los Muertos Catrina to an Ethiopian processional cross, you are led into the ‘Stages of Death’.

This is the main central section that takes you along the journey from ‘Post-Mortem’, through containers, grave goods, funerals and on to mourning, memorialisation and connecting with the dead.  World Cultures highlights in these sections include a loaned Paa Joe Ghanaian fantasy coffin, modern Peruvian grave goods, our beautiful Torres Strait Islander tortoiseshell mask and the stately Papua New Guinea Payback figures.

Modern Peruvian grave goods and above, a view of exhibition, images copyright of Jon Craig.
Other sections interrogate our modern Western attitudes to questions such as ‘When is death?’  by revealing the complexity of the issue when viewed by other cultures and religions across time. 

One of sections that has the highest concentration of ethnographic material is ‘Human Remains’.  The quote ‘What will surive of us is love’ from Philip Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’, presented opposite a case of objects made wholly or partly from human remains, prompts us to consider what exactly we are looking at when we see an Ecuadorian tsantsa or a Naga trophy head.  Incidentally having to apply for a HTA license in order to display material in this section of a questionable less than 100 year age has led to many conversations about the appropriateness of the inclusion of museums with ethnographic material within their remit.

Funeral music from New Orleans and West Africa, and video of royal cremations and burials in Bali and New Zealand can be seen and heard in the exhibition, highlighting the huge global variety that exists in the way people around the world say goodbye to their dead.  A video montage of different ‘death festivals’ from Bolivia’s Day of the Skulls to Madagascar’s ‘Famadihana’ or Turning of the Bones can be seen on the way out of the gallery emphasising not only the creative nature of humans in relation to death and the ancestors but also the celebratory approach present in non-Western responses to the subject.
The exhibition touches on a variety of other areas such as assisted dying, Black Humour and attitudes to different types of death but fundamentally its big message - ‘Let’s talk about Death’ - is given weight and perspective by seeing how ‘others’ have framed death and dying in their own lives and how those societies have much to teach us about life itself. 

Lisa Graves
Collections Officer for World Cultures
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

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