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What do Museums have to do with Death and Dying?

Death happens to us all. And yet, adjusting to a terminal diagnosis or the death of a loved one can seem like an impossible task. It’s always difficult to come to terms with losing someone close. Bereavement is often a long, complicated process. No one person is the same, and people react to grief in a variety of ways. A person may need to work through issues such as anger or depression. Ultimately the goal is to reach some form of acceptance or closure.

A terminal diagnosis has a ripple effect. It changes the lives of the patient but also the lives of their friends and family. Not only do they have to face losing that person, but they also have to deal with practical issues. For instance, they may need to organise paying for care and planning for death. This means that they will be coping with a whole range of worries and stress, on top of the emotional trauma of bereavement.

Death remains a taboo subject

Death and dying are often taboo subjects, even in today’s society. People who are coping with the complex emotions around bereavement can find it difficult to speak about the experience. They may feel like they are ‘bringing the mood down’ or being a burden on those around them. Often, people need a safe space or support network. This can help them to articulate and process the experience.

Museums are a safe space where people can have an opportunity to explore these feelings. They can provide the opportunity to take part in projects, or even just take a moment of quiet contemplation. Museums can help society to explore the themes of death and dying. They can help people to examine their own reactions to these topics.

Dying Matters

Being hit with a terminal diagnosis can turn a person’s world upside down. Alongside all the emotional reactions, there are also practical considerations. Plans need to be made and people often need support to navigate this path. Going through the process of planning for death with a loved one can actually be useful. It can begin the process of coming to terms with what is to come. However, it can be a complicated procedure and not everyone will know where to begin.

Leeds Museums and Galleries were part of a special event in 2017 called Dying Matters. A group of partners including Leeds Bereavement Forum and the Living with Dying Project created the drop-in event. It took place at the Tiled Hall Café in Leeds, UK. Also involved were Leeds City Council Libraries and Full Circle Funerals. The aim of the project was to create a safe space with a whole range of information and support available. Activities and advice sessions took place throughout the day. These were all themed around the topic of planning for the end of life.

The event gave people an opportunity to discuss death and dying. It helped them to connect with others in the same situation, and to start making plans. People were invited to come along with families and loved ones. The event encouraged them to discuss their plans together.

Museums working with palliative care patients

Staff from the V&A museum in Dundee were part of a project in 2018 which invited palliative care patients to redesign a communal space in a care facility. The V&A worked with patients at NHS Tayside’s Macmillan Day Centre in Roxburghe House. Over eight months, museum staff and professional designers guided patients through the process of making the rooms in their building more functional.

palliative care patients museum

V&A Dundee invited palliative care patients to redesign a communal space.

The patients came up with ideas for the new design, which staff helped to make a reality. The V&A Dundee aims to be a community museum and wants to make the idea of design a concept that everyone can engage with. For patients at Roxburghe, the chance to interact with the museum was a positive experience. It made them feel like their input was valuable and that their space mattered. Peter Nurick is the communities producer for V&A Dundee. He explained, “The V&A isn’t just a static institution, it’s about making a difference to people’s lives. We want to bring the museum to people. Especially those who may not necessarily find it easy to come to the museum itself.” The museum has been running a variety of community projects as well as this one. This includes the design of a community garden and projects with people in the criminal justice system.

Art and Medicine

Humans have always had a complicated relationship with illness, medicine and death. A new art trail created by the National Gallery explores this in more detail. The trail focuses on the collections at two different locations. These are the National Gallery itself and the Wellcome Collection’s Medicine Man display.

The artefacts from Sir Henry Wellcome’s collection are interesting and varied. They allow visitors to explore topics around medicine, health and wellbeing. The paintings in the Nation Gallery’s collection record human experiences through the ages. They often show complex emotions and dramatic stories. Part of this art tour focuses on objects that deal with the experience of childbirth. Throughout history, giving birth was fraught with fear, sickness and death. Visitors can see a birthing chair from the 18th or 19th Century. The tour highlights this alongside talismans that people would have used to protect themselves during the experience.

The trail shows how death was a subject that was ever-present for many in previous centuries. High mortality rates and low life expectancies were the norm. One of the paintings showcased by the tour is The Graham Children by William Hogarth, from 1742. This image brings home to viewers the constant threat of mortality that faced people at the time. One of the children depicted died before the painting was completed. He is shown reaching upwards towards heaven in the painting, with other death-imagery in the background. Other highlights of the tour include a lock of hair from King George III who famously suffered from mental illness throughout his life. Visitors can also see a painting of his wife Queen Charlotte, who was greatly affected by caring for him. Understanding how humans have reacted to illness and death throughout history is important. It allows us to place ourselves and our own reactions in context and become part of a larger narrative.

Museums talking about death

Another museum project that focused on the human experience of death took place in 2012-2013. The ‘Participating with Objects’ project was created by the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, UK. It explored how handling objects can connect us to a shared experience through history.

children looking at object related to death

Participating with Objects project at Imperial War Museum North

The project aimed to explore the issues of life and death through the lens of war. Participants were invited to handle and interact with a range of objects. These included a tank, as well as personal items from soldiers such as prayer beads and final letters home. The artefacts ranged from WWI objects to things from the present day. Visitors were encouraged to use these objects and their stories to reflect on life and death, and how war can shape lives. The artefacts told stories of people, place, ideas and events.

A case study on the programme by the Happy Museum Project tells how some people were visibly affected by the object’s connections to war and death. An excerpt from the project log reads, “One of the participants had a strong physical reaction to sitting on the Field Gun in the position where someone died. She went cold and shivery when sat on the gun and her face was clearly scared and shocked at the reaction. She spoke about it to camera. I could see the shock and surprise on her face”

Death as a universal experience

In 2015-2016, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery hosted an innovative exhibition. “Death: the human experience” aimed to paint a picture of how human beings have dealt with death throughout history. It explored a range of cultures from across the world and through the ages.

death: the human experience

Death: The Human Experience at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Objects on display included a Ghanaian fantasy coffin and a Victorian mourning dress. The exhibition revealed how people have been telling stories about death and dying for as long as they have existed. From the earliest societies to the present day, death is an inescapable part of life. Yet, we are still reluctant to discuss it.

The exhibition encouraged people to explore the topic and examine how they reacted to it. Visitors were invited to consider ethical issues and different attitudes towards dying. Displays showed things like funeral routines from different cultures and objects relating to death from across the ages. There was a quiet reflection room at the end of the exhibition. People were encouraged to write down any thoughts or feelings that the displays had stirred in them. They were also invited to sit quietly and reflect. Information and support materials were available.

Normalising the conversation

Although death can be a difficult and upsetting topic, it is one that we cannot escape. Making it more normal to talk about death and dying as a society can help people to come to terms with it. Being more open can make it easier to process emotions. Although bereavement and palliative care are sensitive subjects, museums must not shy away from them. Museums can help to make conversations about death more accessible. They can provide a safe space and help people to connect with shared experiences from history and culture. They are also ideally placed to host support groups and art therapy programmes. Having the opportunity to connect with art in a welcoming space can allow people a window of peace in an emotional time.

Interested in learning more about Health & Wellbeing in Museums? Join us for the Museums, Health & Wellbeing Summit

About the author – Charlotte Coates

Charlotte Coates is a Brighton based writer working extensively in the arts and cultural spaces. Charlotte has explored a wide range of museum related subjects since she started writing for MuseumNext in early 2019.

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