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"Death: Life’s Greatest Mystery": A Curatorial Analysis

By: Benjamin Shaul

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Death: Life’s Greatest Mystery opened at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) on October 28th, 2023, and will close on April 7th, 2024. It is a traveling exhibition from the Chicago Field Museum, curated by Gary Feinman, Ryan Williams and Luis Muro Ynoñán (Feinman et al, 2023).


The premise of the exhibition is to showcase death in all its forms. It starts off with natural death by showcasing a whale fall, which is a whale carcass that sustains a whole ecosystem. It transitions into showcasing cultures from across the world and throughout history such as feudal Japan, the Inca in Peru, and the Romans in Italy. This is all in service to the five sections of the gallery. The first is “What Is Death?” which is illustrated with the whale fall diorama (Feinman et al, 2023). The second theme, "What Will Happen To My Body?", displays the Kusozi Moral Illustrations, artistic depictions of a decomposing body. The third theme "What Will Happen To My Spirit?" is showcased in a copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which highlights what happens to a person’s soul after they die. The fourth theme is “Do I Have To Die” which is showcased in the contrasting views on death from across the world. Finally, the question “How Will My Death Affect Others” is explored towards the end of the exhibition with a Día de los Muertos ofrenda by Norma Rios Sierra, an artist from Mexico.


The tone of the text also reinforces these themes and goals, as it is respectful but ultimately lighthearted. According to the curators the text is meant to be “respectful, but positive, with moments of humour” (Feinman et al, 2023;11). While the gallery spaces are decorated with quotes from philosophers or other people of note, there are some lighthearted moments. For example, you can answer questions relating to your own opinions on death such as “would you like a lavish memorial or a simple one?” and compare your answers to other visitors.


Interactive screen in Death: Life’s Greatest Mystery. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Shaul.

The text and key themes all serve the three curatorial intents highlighted by the curators at the Field Museum. The first is sensory and motor which they describe as “stories organized around the big questions about death we all face” (Feinman et al, 2023; 11). This is highlighted by the main text panels which asks the visitor to consider the big questions about death. The second intent is “affective” which is how the gallery should make the visitors feel, “like this is a safe and comfortable space for engaging with difficult or taboo subjects” (Feinman et al, 2023; 11). This is best illustrated in the exhibit design which features black walls and minimal lighting. I believe this worked, as in both my visits the gallery space was quiet and respectful given the subject matter. The third takeaway is “cognitive” and this is how the visitors will learn that “death is not finite: the matter and meaning of dead individuals carries on after death” (Feinman et al, 2023; 11). This is showcased during the final section where the visitor looks at the social impact of death such as white bikes left at intersections where pedestrians had been killed by automotive vehicles. The exhibit did an excellent job at communicating these three themes.


Two objects I will highlight are the Mars and Venus Roman Basin as well as the Daoist Immortal Figure:


Basin (reproduction). 89 BCE-79. Herculaneum, Italy. Collection of the Field Museum 24010. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Shaul.

Figure of a Daoist Immortal. Created by a Chinese Artisan. Ca. 1550-1650 CE.
Collection of Royal Ontario Museum 925X60.4 (Top Right). Photo courtesy of Benjamin Shaul

These objects are next to each other and highlight the contrasting views of death across the world. In ancient Rome, death was seen as what gives value to life — without death life would become dull. In contrast, in China, the emperors wanted to live forever and took every measure possible to do so. These two objects are used in the curatorial intent to reflect on what death means to us as people and how it impacts society. Death played a large role in both these cultures, yet their interpretations of them are radically different.


This exhibit is elevated by the fact that it fits perfectly with the ROM. This exhibit highlights both death in the animal kingdom and among humans from across the world. The ROM is also a museum that has natural and human history. Despite the exhibition coming from the Field Museum, it feels at home at the ROM. They also updated the exhibit to feature some ways the ROM is embracing the themes of the exhibit. For example, since its debut in October, the ROM has offered multiple lectures to go more in depth on certain subject matter only briefly touched on by the exhibit (ROM, 2023).


Overall, Death: Life’s Greatest Mysteries is one of the most thought provoking and moving exhibitions I have visited. The layout of the exhibit and its smooth transition from different themes made it incredibly enjoyable to walk through. Few gallery spaces have made me self-reflect as much as this one. Upon leaving the gallery I was left with a sense of peace and calmness at what I saw. The curators took great care in ensuring the space felt respectful but not dull. Most of my experience of death comes from movies or TV which often do not take the subject matter of death seriously. This is why this exhibition tackling the subject in a respectful but lighthearted way spoke to me. This exhibit also opened my eyes to how much our own cultural circumstances affect how we view death.  Growing up Jewish in the 21st century in North America informed how I see my own mortality. This exhibit showed me a taste of the wide spectrum of beliefs held around death. Death is a universal experience that we will have to see throughout our entire lives. This exhibit showcased that death does not have to be only upsetting, but can also be beautiful. Death is part of what makes us all human.


Bibliography


Feinman, G., Williams, R., & Ynoñán, L. (2023). Death: Life’s Greatest Mystery Exhibition 


ROM. (2023). Rom U: Death across the ancient world - ancient Egypt - February. Royal

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