Death exhibitions

Lisa Graves, 26.04.2016
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
death: the human experience opened at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery on 24 October 2015 with the unofficial strapline – let’s talk about death!

The exhibition was designed to be a visual exploration of the material culture of death and dying across the world, from prehistory to the contemporary, and to stimulate us as individuals and as a society to start the conversation and promote a healthier attitude towards the subject.

The exhibition was curated and designed over a three-year period by a small in-house team using an internal exhibition budget.

This was supplemented by sponsorship from Co-operative Funeral Care, conservation funding from our friends group, a local archaeological society and a grant from the Wellcome Trust.

During the planning stages we held several meetings with groups of interested critical friends from advocacy, faith and disabled groups.

We created an advisory board of academics and healthcare professionals and consulted widely with death professionals from funeral celebrants to mortuary managers. Representatives from local community groups also helped to supplement the display with information and objects.

Over this period the networks and contacts we had made allowed us to begin to promote the exhibition before it had opened via word of mouth and social media - over 8,000 Facebook attendees signed up prior to the opening.

Our #isawdeath hashtag has seen over 1.5m impressions so far. Local, national and international coverage has been received with reviews showing up in as diverse places as mashable.com, Rife magazine, Design Week and The Economist, as well as BBC Breakfast broadcasting live from the exhibition in January.

In order to help promote the exhibition with our own staff we offered training, delivered by the Dying Matters coalition, in order to help them feel more comfortable with talking to the public about death.

With two weeks of the exhibition still to run we have had 56,000 visitors, exceeding our predicted targets. Schools, colleges, under- and post-graduate groups have visited and used it as the basis for coursework, artwork and events.

Our in-gallery survey has shown that the majority of visitors are under 35, with a substantial increase in students and young people from disadvantaged areas – traditionally difficult groups for us to reach.

18% had never visited the museum before, and 77% came specifically to see the exhibition, with a satisfaction rate of 88%. At the end of the exhibition gallery we created an area for reflection and personal response:

• it’s finally good to talk and hear about death. It is a subject we need to discuss more. More exhibits with controversial topics
• this exhibition convinced me to register as an organ donor
• the death exhibition is fantastic. It has made me think about life and how to enjoy it every single day
• I feel like I just have lived death by seeing the exposition. I think I finally have a positive opinion about it. It kind of changed my opinion about it. Thank you. I am not afraid anymore
• I felt comforted by the honest discussion of assisted suicide.

The exhibition was supported by a programme of public events, the most successful of which related to the supplementary exhibition, ‘death: is it your right to choose?’, that opened on 23 January (focusing on the recreation of a room from the Dignitas flat in Switzerland as the basis for discussion around end-of-life choices).

We held an assisted dying panel debate on 26 January that unfortunately we had to turn people away from after reaching capacity. People were able to listen to the live stream, which is now archived on our YouTube channel along with films and other recordings from our events programme, which included Death Professionals in Conversation and What is a good death?.

Our death blog page on the museum web site has links to this content, as well as a live updated record of the response to the question posed in the gallery survey on whether the law should be changed in this country to allow assisted dying.

From the statistics and from anecdotal evidence from staff working in the gallery and with groups, this has been one of our best attended and most well received exhibitions.

Further work will be done to analyse additional evaluation of the events and educational activities, but for now we have been hearing that people have been going home and beginning the conversation with loved ones about funeral wishes, about end-of life care and about the idea that talking about death is a positive thing.

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