Death and Culture Network 2018: A Review

DacNet UOY RHAlignLast September I had the opportunity to present a paper on Bodies and Display for the Death and Culture II conference at the University of York in the United Kingdom. This was a fantastic opportunity to bring that research to an international audience. While in the UK, I also visited several London and York museums, met with other amazing #DeathStudies scholars, and did some good research for my book, What Remains.

IMG_mh7wdbAccording to the DaCNet website, “The Death and Culture Network based at the University of York seeks to explore and understand cultural responses to mortality. It focuses on the impact of death and the dead on culture, and the way in which they have shaped human behaviour, evidenced through thought, action, production and expression. The network is committed to promoting and producing an inter-disciplinary study of mortality supported by evidence and framed by theoretical engagement.” This is a true interdisciplinary work of genius, and a fun group of people to meet and collaborate with for sure.

I can not emphasize enough how much I enjoyed this conference and the other presentations and discussions held formally and informally. I will explore those in future blogs in more detail.

IMG_20180907_102201_205In my presentation I explored the legacy of freakshows and cabinets of curiosities on the current guidelines and ethics of museums in regard to the display of human remains. Topics I am brought up included: ethics, public reactions, and responsibilities of public historians with regards to the display and exhibition of human remains. I also presented on the racial, ableist, and class implications of displaying human remains in natural history, history, and medical museums. I also mentioned cultural patrimony of objects, as well as human remains as museum objects. I posed many questions in my talk about how old do human remains have to be to be considered “objects” and no longer people? How do visitors react to various human remains on display, from mummies, to Victorian hair wreath memorials, to skeletons or cremated remains? Human remains have been a part of exhibitions since the first museums opened in various forms; from the case of Sarah Baartman and nineteenth century freak shows, to modern displays of mummies and medical specimens, the human body has often been a source of emotion, intrigue, and education. Have museums moved beyond the “freakshow,” or are current human remain displays merely an extension of the spectacle of the earliest museum?

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And I got to see Trish!

I had a blast doing this presentation, and I even managed to finish my talk with 4 seconds to spare. The audience and other panel members were so accepting and helpful, and they brought so many insights to my talk. I can’t wait to be back in York in 2020 for DaCIII!

Meet MMM: Trish Biers

 

I remember the night so vividly, my father and I stood behind a burgundy velvet rope waiting to go into the cinema.  I didn’t know what to expect, it was quite a grown-up movie for me and the excitement around opening night was a big deal for a little girl. Seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark that night would change my life forever. I was hooked on Archaeology. I wanted to transcribe ancient texts, work in a museum, ride horses through rugged landscapes, and learn about mummies (little did I know it would be about pleading for grant money and A LOT of bugs).  Having experienced quite a lot of death at a young age, I was fascinated by what people did with dead bodies, how they were preserved, what special things were buried with them, and how the living mourned for those they had lost.

I went on my first dig at 17 and became a docent for the Ancient Egyptian Gallery at the San Diego Museum of Man at 19 while doing my undergraduate degree in Anthropology. I lucked out with an internship in the Physical Anthropology collections and that is where I met one of mentors, Rose Tyson. She let me work with the human remains and trained me how to identify diseases, trauma, and showed me how to learn about life from the dead. By 21, the Museum hired me to work in their gift shop. I was thrilled because it was full of wonderful books and we got a discount! Over the next 11 years I held many positions at the Museum of Man, from ‘Shopgirl’ to Educator, to Associate Curator in physical Anthropology and Archaeology. During this time my exposure to human remains in museum collections evolved and so did my contemplation on death. I worked almost daily with the dead, whether it was cataloguing the collection of trephined skulls, preparing mummy exhibits, cleaning shrunken heads, or conserving ancient Egyptian coffins. I researched treatment of the dead across the world, and taught about what we can learn from bones. It was also at this time that I started to investigate the educational value and ethics in displaying the dead in the galleries.

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This was recently in the San Diego Union Tribune and my lovely father cut it out and sent it to me, not realizing I was in it! Then he made a joke about how young I looked. (Colin is now a police officer).

In 2000 I attended the American Association of Physical Anthropology meetings and I gave my first poster presentation titled, “Mysteries of the Mummies: Educating the Public about Human Remains” which was based on a main floor gallery exhibition called Mysteries of the Mummies. I was utterly fascinated with how the living engaged with the dead. Was it right to display the dead? Did the public want to see these kinds of exhibits? The response was pretty overwhelming, the attendance had tripled at the museum the year we had that exhibition. What was really interesting though were the conversations between adult and child about death and dying. The exhibition encouraged dialogue about death by showing ancient death rituals with contemporary practices. Visitors left tremendous feedback that was both in praise for and in criticism of the exhibition.

Fast forward to today and I’ve now got two decades under my belt of working with human remains, whether it is in museums, university collections, or through excavations. I’ve analysed mummified remains from South America, Europe, Mexico, Egypt, Alaska, and the Canary Islands. My PhD at Cambridge was on Inka mummies and now I’m here curating one of the most significant collections of human remains in the world. But my calling is not without controversy. Not everyone wants to see dead bodies on display nor do they want their ancestors analysed to answer broad archaeological questions. Many collections were built on colonial endeavors and most of these were atrocious.  The bodies of the impoverished, disfigured people, ethnic minorities, the sick, and the unfortunate filled collections all over the world. My goal today is transparency in displaying the dead- with communities, with researchers, with the public, to promote a better understanding of the creation and purpose of these collections.

I’m excited about an upcoming publication I have authored titled, “Displaying the Dead: Rethinking purpose, protocol, and popularity in displaying the dead in museums” which is part of a volume called Ethical Challenges in the Analysis of Human Remains by Elsevier. I’m also looking forward to sharing more content for the Mors Mortis Museum blog and social media sites. I’m thrilled to be working with Dr Katie Stringer Clary on this excellent endeavor.

Dying for life

‘Dying for Life’ Event at Cambridge Crematorium. Image courtesy of Susan Elaine Jones.

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‘Plague Late’ evening event at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. Image courtesy of University of Cambridge Museums.

I still watch Raiders every Christmas but the film has become what a lot of films in the 80s have become, heavily criticized and deconstructed with a different narrative that speaks to socio-political and colonial contexts…and as Amy in the Big Bang Theory pointed out, what did Indy actually do right?  But for a tomboy in braids wearing unicorn-rainbow Vans, the film was the catalyst for my lifelong love of archaeology, museums, and my respect for people of the past.

 

Dr Trish Biers is the Collections Manager of the Duckworth laboratory at the Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge. She curates a collection of roughly 22,000 archaeological and anatomical human remains, non-human primates, fossil casts, blood and hair samples. Since 1995, Dr Biers has worked in museums in all manner of roles from gallery attendant to Associate Curator. Previous positions she has held include Osteologist in the Repatriation Osteology Laboratory, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution; Educator at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge; Associate Curator and Repatriation Coordinator (NAGPRA Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) at the San Diego Museum of Man in California. Currently, she teaches Treatment of the Dead, Ethics in Archaeology, and Decolonisation in the Department of Archaeology. She lectures at the Institute for Continuing Education at Cambridge where she teaches about rethinking death from past to present, osteology, and epidemic disease in history.

Personal Website / Twitter / Instagram

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meet MMM: Katie Clary

Katie_Clary(760x3)-4This post introduces MMM co-founder Dr. Katie Clary and her entry into death studies as a museum professional. Be on the lookout for more blogs from Dr. Clary and Dr. Biers this summer! 

In 2015 I was on the job market after leaving a position of Executive Director of a Historic House Museum in Tennessee, USA. I found myself at a bit of a loss as I contemplated where my research would take me following the publication of my manuscript on accessibility for people with special needs, the publication of a chapter on accessibility in education in The Manual for Museum Learning, 2nd Edition, and continuing my work towards truly accessible museums. 

Discussions with a close friend helped me figure out a natural progression on this research. I decided to take a new track based on the historiographical work I did in my dissertation on museum history and the use of human bodies and human remains in museums. My previous work focused on living humans, often billed as “freaks“, in museums and other exhibitions; now I want to focus on the corporeal remains that we still see in museums today: mummies, bog bodies, medical specimens, skeletons, relics, shrunken heads, and so much more.  What laws (aside from NAGPRA) govern the display and collection of human remains? What are the ethics involved here? How does the public react to these remains? These are just some of the questions I hope to answer as I embark on a new research plan.

For my first foray into death studies, I organized a roundtable at the National Council on Public History meeting in 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada to present preliminary findings and bring together a fascinating group of women who study these questions. Our presentation, “Death and Display, Bodies and Boundaries” explored our own work and also encourage participation from our audience. I invited my former college roommate, Shelby Judge, a modern funeral director; Laura Anderson Barbata, artist and activist; Dr. Trish Biers, osteoarchaeologist at Cambridge University museums; and Kristen Semento from Winterthur Museum and Gardens. This was my first encounter with now-collaborator and partner in MMM, Trish Biers!

As I planned a trip abroad, I knew I would have the opportunity to visit international museums that are working with these issues. What I didn’t know was the amount of opportunities that would present themselves on my trip. My future blogs will detail some of the places I visited and some of the remains I encountered in Ireland and Scotland, as well as the UK, Iceland, and other places.

The first stop on my 2017 trip to Ireland was the Irish Museum of Modern Art. I had just arrived in Ireland, my hotel room was not ready, and my husband and I needed to get out and see the sights while we waited. The only problem was: I don’t think I have ever been as exhausted as I was on this museum visit. I was jet-lagged. I was running none hour of plane sleep. It. Was. Awesome.

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IMMA was in a great historic building, and there were some interesting exhibits while we were there. However, there was one exhibit in particular that spoke to me through my sleepy haze and has stuck with me. It also set the tone for my exploration into death and bodies.

In the back of the museum, in a quiet, dark room with benches (the initial attraction, let’s be real), I encountered a film installation. The piece, titled The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music by The Propeller Group is probably the best video installation I have ever seen.  Their description reads:

The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Musicis a visual and musical journey through the fantastical funeral traditions and rituals of south Vietnam. It attempts to engage in dialogue with funerary traditions that pulsate in the same vein throughout the global south. The film merges documentary footage of actual funeral processions with stunning re-enactments that bring the film into the realm of the abstract, poetic and metaphorical – a rumination on death and the lives that pay homage to it.

I encourage you to watch the video in its entirety if you can. It is so fascinating, beautiful, disturbing, scary, and amazing all at the same time. The fact that I was almost at a hallucinatory stage of tiredness only heightened by appreciation for the piece. However, it stands up even as I re-watch it today.

So that’s it! This is how I came to my new program of research, and I’m so excited to have already been welcomed with open arms by so many Death Historians and Death Academics. Thank you, and I can’t wait to let you all know more about my research!

Dr. Katie Stringer Clary currently teaches history and public history at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina. She is working on several projects currently including a manuscript tentatively titled _What Remains_ about human remains in museums. Since 2007, Dr. Clary has worked with museums in various capacities from docent to executive director.  In her time at museums and as a graduate student in Public History she focused on museum education and inclusion, especially for people with special needs. Through her work, she continues to advocate for accessibility equality in museums and historic sites.  Dr. Clary is also interested in the history of museums, museum administration, digital histories, and community engagement.  In her spare time, she likes to camp and hike, travel, and spend time with her dog Harry Clary and cat Miss Frances.

Follow Katie on Twitter, Instagram, and her personal website: www.katiestringerclary.com

Trauma, Art, Grieving, and Memento Mori

IMG_20190330_142939Our inaugural blog comes from artist Charles Clary, who was kind enough to design our MMM logo. Clary recently won the $12,500 People’s Choice 2D award at the regional art competition ArtFields in South Carolina, as well as the Jury Chosen $2,000 Merit Award for his piece “Memento Morididdle.” Follow his recent work on his website and his instagram

My work stems from the loss of both my mother and father due to smoking related cancers in February of 2013. Their passing left a deep void in my life that led to my interest in Memento Mori, or the act of coming to terms with ones own mortality. Through this investigation I came to terms with the trauma of my childhood and the lack of memories I actually have.

Trauma is something we all unfortunately share and mine started early in life and continued well into my young adulthood. My parents were unhappily married and divorced when I was in the 5th grade. My father soon abandoned us and my mother turned to alcohol. She became a functioning alcoholic and chain-smoker while my father sunk into severe alcoholism and eventually became homeless. At the same time my mother became an animal hoarder and at the worst point had 15 feral dogs living within our home. I was ruthlessly picked on growing up due to the stench one would associate with the house I was living in and it was hard to make friends. I turned to art and music as a theraputic release from reality not knowing how big a part it would eventually play.

I eventually escaped this life earning my BFA in painting and later my MFA. While I still maintained a relationship with my mother, resentment, anger, and sadness were ever present. After my mother suffered a near fatal heart attack in the summer of 2006 she quite drinking but continued smoking. No matter what was said or how much I pleaded she hung on to that habit, and in 2012 was diagnosed with stage 4 small cell carcinoma. Meanwhile, around the same time, my father was diagnosed with mouth, throat, and esophageal cancer due to his smoking. It was a long ugly battle for both of them, and on February 16, 2013, my mother lost her battle with cancer; two weeks later so did my father.

How does one come to terms with losing one parent let alone two in such a short period of time? Granted they were’t the poster children for great parenting, but they were my parents. The loss was severe and overwhelming to say the least. I stopped making art for a time and battled alcohol myself as a poor coping mechanism. But eventually I turned to the thing I knew best, the surrogate that nurtured me in my darkest childhood days: my artwork. I began to contemplate memento mori and memento vivere / remember you will die / remember to live. Little did I know that this would become the impetus behind several bodies of work that continue today.

I began to think alot about my childhood, and as I did I realized how little memory I had. This was un-nerving to say the least. It was difficult to remember happy moments or even traumatic ones, though those stood out more prevalent than any other. This is when I stumbled into my discarded frames work. Frames usually encapsulate a cherished moment of elation and celebration. I was somewhat unfamiliar with this idea because we never really took many photos so there isnt much documentation of my growing up. I always found family photos a bit odd because they seemed like posed moments stuck in time. I was more drawn to the moments we dont see the things we hide away in dark corners to never be spoken of. These traumas or “beautiful scars” as I like to call them, are to be remembered, more so than the posed moments. These instances force us to make decisions, to take the right rather than the left, to push beyond what we think we are capable of and more often than not make us stronger and more resilient.

I began to collect discarded frames from antique stores, and thrift shops. They felt abandoned and forgotten much like my memories and trauma. By incorporating my paper sculptures into these frames they are imbued with new life. Each opening resembles a scar, a wound, or even a disease. They challenge the viewer to face the unfaceable and reflect on the past while reorienting their own personal traumas. They are installed in salon style groupings reflecting on the southern United States home and the collection of memories found in hallways or staircases.

The overwhelming nature of each installation is purposeful as trauma feels like the heaviest of burdens something that time often doesnt heal. But there is a hopefulness with the saturation of color and delicateness of each cut.

Charles Clary was born in 1980 in Morristown, Tennessee. He received his BFA in painting with honors from Middle Tennessee State University and his MFA in painting from the Savannah College of Art and Design. He has shown in exhibitions at Galerie EVOLUTION-Pierre Cardin in Paris, France, Pierogi Gallery and Nancy Margolis Gallery in New York, Spoke art in San Francisco, and museum shows at Mesa Contemporary Art Museum, Gadsten Museum of Art, Currier Museum of Art and Cornell Museum of Art. Clary has been featured in numerous print and Internet interviews including, WIRED magazine (US and UK), Hi Fructose, Beautifuldecay.com, Bluecanavs Magazine, and This Is Colossal, as well as a recent feature in American Craft Magazine. He was also featured in the Art On Paper Art Fair with Kenise Barnes Fine Art in 2014 and with Paradigm Gallery in 2017. He has also been featured in publications including 500 Paper Objects, Paper Works ,Paper Art, Papercraft 2, PUSH: Paper, and The New Twenties.

Welcome to MMM!

Welcome to Mors Mortis Museum!

Screen Shot 2019-03-02 at 12.11.27 PMMors Mortis Museum began as an international collaboration between Drs. Trish Biers and Katie Clary in 2017. In 2019 we launched a social media presence, and we plan to continue to grow our collective with blogs, interviews, meet-ups, and workshops or a conference. One of the main purposes of the group is to foster conversation that will lead to better practice and protocol for how museums and institutions do public engagement with human remains. Additionally, we hope to help create conversation with new narratives about collecting and acquisition along with evaluating how museums are responding to increasing transparency about their collections.

Please feel free to contact us with questions, comments, pitches for blogs, more information, or just for a chat. You can also read more about us, our motives, and the people behind MMM on our About Us page.

We are compiling a working list of Information and Resources about death, museums, human remains, and more.  Please contact us or comment to let us know about resources we should include. This is a growing and evolving list that is no where near comprehensive (yet!).

Find us on Twitter @MorsMortisMuse, and on Facebook and don’t forget to subscribe or follow our our blog.

Looking forward to many conversations, workshops, and more in the future,
Trish + Katie