Death by Museums

‘Let’s go and see the dead people.’

Turns out my friend was joking, but we did end up looking at the dead people.

Before this becomes too macabre I should clarify our visit was to the British Museum, and more specifically their extensive Egyptian exhibits. We’d visited previously to see ‘Faith After the Pharoahs’ (well worth it in my opinion – less than a month remaining!) and had returned to spend a day wandering the rest of it.

The incredible architecture of the British Museum
This is all part of me making the most of living in London. Working centrally, I know how quickly you can get used to your surroundings and not venture beyond the necessary, so prior to moving I had an (in my opinion) inspired idea.

In my teenage years I was a devoted reader of Paula Danziger books. She wrote about some of the issues that faced teenagers, and I loved them. But the books my idea came from are ‘Remember Me To Harold Square‘ and ‘Thames Doesn’t Rhyme With James‘ (if you’re English this is amusingly true, if you’re not it’s probably helpful). Kendra, her annoying brother Oscar and their forced friend Frank are sent on a serendipity scavenger hunt. The idea is to explore the city, collecting ‘buttons’ (badges if you’re English) to prove they’ve been there. So I decided to embark on my own serendipitous scavenger hunt, specifically of museums in London.

I could have included art galleries, but I know I’ll find museums more interesting. By nature I am nosey inquisitive about the ways in which other people live, cultures and why they lived the ways they did.

My project does mean that any visitors and friends may well be subject to whole days spent wandering cavernous hallways or observing incidental details of another’s life. But in embarking on this I have also been able to consider what might interest other people and how they can therefore enjoy their visit, while I learn a lot and contribute to my serendipitous scavenger hunt.

The initial meaning of my post title is therefore that I may well become utterly sick of museums before long. Just how long this takes remains to be seen. However a secondary meaning happened upon me as I negotiated the crush and saw a man, dead for thousands of years but with skin and hair intact.

It left me with a question: what do I think of the inclusion of people’s actual bodies as museum artefacts?

Permission being granted would be preferable, which challenges the inclusion of Charles Byrne’s skeleton in the Hunterian Museum (where I’ve yet to pay a visit). Knowing his extreme height was a source of interest to many, he wanted to be buried at sea to prevent his skeleton being displayed, but those carrying his wishes out were bribed, resulting in his skeleton being displayed today. Permission would also mean that Van Hagen’s Bodyworks is legitimate, but I’m not sure I can subscribe to a visit there despite people being willing to have their corpses displayed. Then there is also the issue of time, and how many thousands of years ago it is unlikely people thought their bodies, coffins and funeral shrouds would be displayed behind glass screens for others to view at a small cost. 

Are wrapped up skeletons different to exposed ones? What if it’s a part of the skeleton rather than a whole? What if there is no story about their life, is that better or worse? 

My hesitations aside, the ritual of death is fascinating. The gods, belief systems, rituals and care (or lack of) taken over the burial are of interest to other generations and cultures. But to what extent is our presentation of those bodies acceptable? It’s something I’ve yet to figure out, but has been an interesting point to ponder – please do comment below with your thoughts. 

Equally, if there’s a museum in London you love or want to visit, death by museums will be much more fun with company! 

Museum visit total: 3

  • Victoria and Albert Museum
  • The British Museum
  • Sir John Soane Museum 

2 thoughts on “Death by Museums

  1. I am so jealous — I would love to visit all of those museums! I’ve only been to the British National Museum and it was fantastic.

    I went to BodyWorks a couple of years ago. While I found many of the exhibits educational, I was appalled by some that seemed like they were making light of death, or were too “showy”. I think, for example, of the flayed man, with a top hat on his head. To me, that was in poor taste. I think it is wonderful to show the human body as a real thing — it certainly made me cherish my own body — but another thing to make a spectacle out of someone’s demise.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow that does sound harrowing! I think if the bodies are treated with respect I’m more accepting of them being in a museum, I don’t think I’ll be taking a trip to BodyWorks!
      I need to return to Sir John Soane’s in daylight to check out all the objects!


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