Death exhibition at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Posted on by Fay Curtis.

Amber Druce and Lisa Graves, Collections Officers for World Cultures

Photo of a model of a tomb from PompeiiWe’ve been really busy over the last few months planning an exhibition about death, due to open at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery in October 2015. It will show objects from across the world and from many cultures and through time (from Bristol’s own amazing collections). We want it to offer lots of voices and attitudes so that we can all learn from other perspectives.

Many psychologists and bereavement counsellors believe that as a society we, and especially children, need to talk more about death to make it less scary. In this exhibition we’re looking to offer a communal, safe environment to address the issues and ethics around death and dying. Many cultures concentrate on celebrating the lives of deceased loved ones, most famously in Mexico, so it isn’t all doom and gloom!

photo of an Egyptian coffin for the Death exhibitionWe’ve been working on an objects list, photographing artefacts, and grouping objects together by subjects and stories. Artefacts include Mexican Day of the Dead figurines, a mortuary table, Egyptian coffins, Buddhist watercolours showing death processes & ancestor worship, and mourning clothes and jewellery.

We’ve started talking to the public and to professionals from the death industry (such as the Centre of Death & Society in Bath, Arnos Vale Cemetery, University of Bristol Buddhist Death Project, independent celebrants, researchers, healthcare professionals), and various artists. The response from potential collaborators has been overwhelming, especially those for the public programme; creative writing workshop leaders, speakers, art psychotherapists, death café hosts, and theatrical programmers & performers.

Mexican Day of the Dead The events we’re organising to go with the exhibition will be just as significant as the exhibition itself, to do justice to such an important subject. We’re planning a range of activities, including will writing workshops, debates, theatre, film screenings, and day-schools. If you can’t wait until next year, our first Death Café will be on 31 October 2014, part of the museum’s Mexican Day of the Dead event.

There’s still time to let us know what you think about the exhibition. Is it something you’d visit or would you avoid it? What kind of events are you interested in? Are there any issues that you think are taboo? Let us know – we’d love to hear from you! Send us a note through our contact form, tweet us or pop a comment below.

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12 comments on “Death exhibition at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

  1. Lucienne Kelfkens

    We are working on a documentary on diverse choices in South Africa regarding farewell ceremonies in the context of expenses, space and environment. Would you be interested to use this for your exhibition?


    1. Lisa Graves

      Hi Lucienne
      That sounds very interesting, we would love to hear about your research. Drop us a line with more details about you and your work.


  2. Emily Millward

    Hi Lisa,

    This exhibition sounds absolutely fantastic. I am currently finishing my PhD in Egyptology which focusing on approaches to death, specifically mourning practices. Using items of material culture I have focused on ancient Egypt as a case study, but have also encorporated other ancient (Greek and Roman) and cross-cultural examples. I think it is great that your exhibition will also look at death from this cross-cultural perspective. My research found that biologically death is inherent and essentially ‘human’, but that approaches to death and its representations in material culture vary greatly due to these approaches been ‘culturally embedded’.

    I also work in a museum so an exhibition like this which brings together my research and love of museums and material culture is right up my street! I can’t wait to see it all in 2015. Really exciting!

    Best wishes,
    Emily Millward.
    PhD Egyptology, the University of Birmingham
    Museum Collections Assistant, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust


    1. Amber Druce

      Hi Emily,
      Thanks for getting in touch. You might also be interested in the ‘Death’ & ‘Afterlife’ sections of our Egypt Gallery. If you visit us, let me know & maybe we can meet up for a chat. I’ll drop you an email so you have our details.
      Thanks, Amber.


  3. Jane Harris

    We have spoken previously about possibilities for including our films and photography projects in your event next year. See our award winning website
    Can you contact me to follow up our conversation.
    Best wishes


    1. Lisa Graves

      Hi Jane
      Yes we have your details on our database of interesting people with useful things for us to use once we get closer to pinning down our content and events! I will email you directly to see if there is anything in particular you would like to discuss.


  4. Anna Tozzi Di Marco

    I’m very interested in this exhibition, since I spent about 10 years living in Cairo’s City of the dead to make an anthropological fieldwork. On web you can find some of my articles even in English and I have many publications in this respect.
    Best Regards
    Anna Tozzi Di Marco


    1. Lisa Graves

      Dear Anna
      Thanks for getting in touch. We will certainly look up your work and be in touch if there is anything further we like to discuss with you for the exhibition content.
      Best wishes


  5. Charleen Agostini

    Main interest is around how we today are able to, or not able to, engage and connect with death and dying. Might there be some generous and open-hearted persons, who could be willing to be interviewed – those who care about the process of dying and who are closer than most of us to that state of dying at the moment, to help us all with engaging with the multiple experiences at that gateway. As a society and culture we need this. It is a big Ask. Recently watched a film Griefwalker in which there were two people dying and it was very moving and life-giving to partake in their process. Deep thanks to them for being willing to be filmed.
    Will definitely attend the exhibition. Thanks to everyone contributing. Charleen


  6. Remy Nurse

    Hello there,
    Firstly congrats on a beautiful exhibition, I’m an illustrator fascinated by anatomy and the human mind and thought it was very thought provoking. But I feel like I had to email purely because of how I felt after, the way that death isnt talked about freely and is feared means exhibitions like this are eye opening to some people but I still felt a bit sad, and instantly made me think of the book by Mary Roach called Stiff. About the use of human cadaver ls after the person has passed away, and this book completely transformed my fear of dying because of how much death can mean so much in terms of education, science and developing lives and saving lives, like practicing surgeons, plane crash investigators, crash dummys, and research into decay etc! who without death wouldn’t be working the miracles they are today. I think death is such a difficult subject but when you separate the soul of a person and the shell of their body, it’s almost calming to think that they are still a part of the world in some way, still influencing these amazing areas of research and science. Much of the fear of death comes from the unknown but I think to purely focus on the leading up to and ending of a life is why there is so much stigma around it, because we have no way of seeing the other side and telling out loved ones they will be ok. So to see how we can still effect and help society even after we pass I think is less like falling into a black hole of the unknown, and I think it’s a shame that none of this was in the exhibition, but I appreciate the space and the pieces that were in there. And tobcover every aspectof such a massive subject you would need the whole building!! Again beautiful exhibition I did really enjoy it, but I thought I would voice this to see what you think, thankyou,


  7. Margaret Coles

    I would have liked to visit 2016 exhibition in Bristol, but health and family circumstances are preventing me from doing so. Now at the age of 76 yrs, I am approaching sooner than later, the death of my own body. I am not phased by this, experiences within care of the terminally ill, seeing the spirit leave the body, my own near death, research etc; has reassured me that we are spirit having a human experience. Well done to those who present this to the general public. Sincerely, Margaret.


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