death : the human experience at Bristol Museum

What does death mean to you? It’s something we all have in common, and the curators at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery want you to start talking about it more.

Three years in the making, death: the human experience showcases over 200 items that illustrate the ways we as humans have approached death across time and across the world.

The exhibition aims to celebrate and explore the different ways we look after our dead and how we remember them when they’re gone.

But it’s not all doom and gloom; Collections Officers for World Cultures and curators Lisa Graves and Amber Druce want people to see the humour in death as we do in life, with objects like the Ghanaian fantasy coffin, a cartoon-like lion which they hope will make people smile.

The exhibition is a cross-cultural look at death, it’s about understanding how differently we all deal with and treat death, but it’s also about breaking the stigma of talking about it. Particularly in Western society, it is something a lot of us are afraid to talk about.

“We’ve learnt so much about breaking taboos about death; if we embrace it in our lives it can help us move on and embrace life itself,” says Lisa, “We’re trying to look at death with a positive attitude; it’s very celebratory as you can tell from the pink in the banners, it’s vibrant and bright.”

The use of lower case letters in the title is deliberate; the curators decided that avoiding the capital on ‘death’ would avoid scaring people off. In the same way we used to talk about cancer as ’The Big C’, the team at Bristol Museum want to change that for death to make sure people aren’t afraid to talk about it.

As you enter the exhibition, bird song plays over your head, Lisa says as a ‘reminder to take a deep breath’ and embrace the sensitive issue that they are tackling. There are human remains in the exhibition, some from a recently deceased person, but the exhibition isn’t intending to be shocking or controversial. The curators believe it’s about starting a discussion and facing the realities of death in order to speak about it more openly.

At the end of the exhibition you are invited into the reflection space, a softly lit room with a chance to write down your feelings and throw them into the fire pit, which the curators chose because it is a universal symbol of people gathering together and sharing stories and ideas. The curators hope that visitors will take conversations home with them, and talk to their friends and families about death in a more open minded and accepting way.

Bristol Museum are asking visitors to pay what they think the exhibition is worth at the end, to give visitors the freedom to enjoy the experience and take something valuable from it.

So if you’re looking for something to do one weekend, the exhibition is running from the 24th October until 13th March 2016, as is supported by Co-operative Funeralcare, and the Wellcome Trust.

Words by Summer Brooks.

Photography by Joe Thorp.

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