The Morbid Anatomy Museum had only been officially open about six weeks when my Residency began and it hit two months by the time I finished. This is important because the MAM is a new institution and is in the early stages of building its intellectual, artistic, and economic infrastructure.
The Museum grew out of the Morbid Anatomy Library, started in 2008 by Museum Creative Director Joanna Ebbenstein. I have known Joanna since July 2009.
Some general observations on the new Morbid Anatomy Museum and its transition away from the Morbid Anatomy Library
The audiences for the films and lectures at the Museum are different than they were at the Library. I noticed this right away. The audiences were largely people who hadn’t been to many (if any) previous Museum or Library events, and weren’t entirely sure what to expect. This is good, I think. It’s bound to happen when institutions change and the Museum is in the process of building an entirely new kind of audience base. I always found the audiences for my Museum talks responsive and full of good questions. The key issue here is to maintain the Museum’s institutional integrity while building this new audience and to avoid defaulting to ‘wacky’ events in order to keep selling tickets. I don’t think that the MAM will lose sight of its intellectual foundations but, alas, economic concerns sometime begin to weigh on programming decisions. I’ve been part of those kinds of conversations many times in the past.
Another issue that became apparent to me during my Residency was that popular culture and mass media interest in death has peaked. This observation is partly related to the saturation coverage anything and everything about death is currently receiving from mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times, Vice, National Public Radio, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, etc., the list goes on and on. At a certain point, the popular culture and mass media interest will also become farcical, something that seems to already be happening.
One sidenote: reporters should really, really learn to stop using death related puns and then think that they’re clever, but I’ve long since given up on that ever happening.
The other reason that I think mainstream, popular culture interest in death has peaked is related to the research that I was doing during my Residency. I’m currently looking at 1970’s death discourse and end-of-life movements, mostly in America but also the United Kingdom. Until relatively recently, I was unaware how much popular attitudes towards death had changed from 1970-1979. It turns out that the 1970’s were a hotbed of discussion, activism, and death culture debate that significantly affected our contemporary moment. A number of groups that took shape during the 1970’s remain with us today, e.g., the death acceptance movement, the natural death movement (which advocated foregoing medical treatment to die ‘naturally’), and death with dignity groups.
“…it seems likely that eventually humans will construct for themselves a new, or at least altered, death culture and organization — a new “craft of dying” – better able to contain the new experience…I believe, as do other sociological observers…that in the ferment of activity relative to death and dying during the last two decades in the United States we have witnessed and are witnessing just such a reconstruction. Undoubtedly within this ferment, especially that emanating from the mass media, there are elements of fad and fashion – a thanatological “chic” as it were, having approximately the same level of import as organic gardening and home canning among the rich. And certainly one can never underestimate the capacity of American public discourse to transform “life and death matters” into passing enthusiasms. But there is, I believe, more to this activity than simply one more example of impermanent trendiness in modern life. Americans, especially affluent middle-class Americans, have been in the process of creating new or at least altered ways of thinking, believing, feeling, and acting about death and dying because they have been confronting a new “face of death.”
This quote is on p.16 of her book The Craft of Dying: The Modern Face of Death, which was published in 1978. If anyone reading this passage was struck by how uncannily it describes 2014, then you’re not alone. Indeed, reading Lofland’s work has been a revelation and the 1970s have become my new area of research.
Per Lofland’s forty-year-old observations, an institution such as the Morbid Anatomy Museum is made conceptually possible, I think, because of the current middle class interest in death and thanatological chic. What made the Museum physically possible was the time and labor spent building the Morbid Anatomy Library, a project that never set out to be fashionable. The challenge the Museum now faces is when death chic is replaced by another interest for the urban middle classes.
A final thought on an issue that the 1970’s were never able to solve. Affluent, mostly white middle-class Americans need to also expand their current death interests beyond themselves and begin tackling funeral and death poverty for the poor. It’s a lot easier to make elaborate home-based funerals your political cause when you’ve got the time (which translates into money) to do so. The quicker that this economic reality is recognized by today’s Happy Death Movement (a term Lofland coined in the 1970’s) the sooner longer lasting changes will occur.
The upside of these dilemmas is that even when death’s middle class fashionability dissipates, the face of death will continue to stare us all down.
In a word, the work never ends.
Many thanks to the following people who helped make my Residency so wonderful and productive:
Laetitia, Brant, Joanna, AC, Paco, Eric Sollien, Christine Colby and Lady Aye
And special thanks to:
Mac, Catherine, Daphne, Oona, and Simon
The very very first post also occurred on June 07, 2009 but the links in the post are all broken and dead. Remember– five years(!) is a long time for the interwebs.
None of us had any idea that we would make it to year five. Indeed, this entire adventure started as a series of e-mail messages that Kim and I exchanged about wanting to start some kind of new website to discuss death, dying, and the dead body but in an interesting and compelling way that didn’t automatically revert to wacky funerals and lame puns.
Very quickly, however, Kim and I realised that we didn’t know anything about creating anything online so I e-mailed Meg who did and who also studied death. She said sure.
And that, dear Death Reference Desk friends, is how we made it to five years.
Sure sure we’ve had our collective ups and downs. Each of us has moved, loved, lost, laboured, felt guilty and then not guilty about not posting enough on the website. It’s just so easy (SO EASY) to use Facebook and Twitter….
Oddly enough, the three of use have never actually been together in the same room at the same time during the last five years. Not once. But the internet being the internet and death being death, it didn’t really matter.
Most disastrously for Death Ref, I unwittingly developed some naughty web posting habits that really irked Google and suddenly in 2012 ye olde Death Reference Desk stopped showing up in search results.
Thankfully Meg has swooped in and is fixing those issues while we continue to revamp and play with our fresh and minty new website.
We heart you Google!
In order to celebrate both the new website design and our first five years I am going to try something that I have always wanted to do with the Death Reference Desk.
For the next 31 Days, I will post at least one news story, thought, image, or idea each day on the website to demonstrate a key part of my own Centre for Death and Society research: we Humans are surrounded by death every single day. Not a day goes by where we don’t see/hear/smell something about death.
I will also use these 31 Days to flag up some of my favourite previous Death Reference Desk posts and try some other content ideas that I’ve never gotten to.
It’s important, I think, to challenge the conventional wisdom that describes death as a taboo and socially repressed topic. If Death Ref has demonstrated anything, it’s that both of these ideas are incorrect.
Museum of Morbid Anatomy
The next 31 Days will also be used for my own shameless self-promotion as I prepare to be the Morbid Anatomy Museum’s Scholar in Residence during the month of August. I will be giving a series of lectures, curating film screenings, and running field trips during the Residency.
The Morbid Anatomy Museum, as many of you may know, is in Brooklyn, New York and I already know how jealous everyone will be that I get to spend AUGUST in NEW YORK. I am already predicting daily experiences with aromatic summertime organic flesh decomposition.
A final big thanks to all of the Death Reference Desk’s readers. We’ve gotten many amazing (and, um, sometimes slightly creepy) e-mail messages over the years and we love it. All of it. All of you.
Especially from all of those kids writing High School or College essays on death who found Death Ref while pulling an all nighter and realised that Meg, Kim, and I saved them from complete and total failure.