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.

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‘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

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