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Snippets In A Pot: An Exploration of Cultural Narratives In "Death: Life’s Greatest Mystery"

By: Kexin Han

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When I walked by the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and saw the huge promotional banner saying Death: Life’s Greatest Mystery for the first time, my first thought was: “Is this topic too big to cover?”


The idea of creating an exhibition about death sounds like writing a story about life: it has to be everything. To find an answer for my question, I stepped into the ROM to see how this exhibition was designed to tell a story (the story?) about death.


Asking The Big Questions


At the entrance, a wall with several questions written in both English and French caught my eye.

“What is death?”
“What will happen to my spirit?”
“Do I have to die?”
“How will my death affect others?”
“What will happen to my body?”

Fig.1 The wall of big questions at the entrance of Death: Life’s Greatest Mystery. Photo courtesy of Kexin Han.

This inquisitive introduction made me start thinking about the concept of death, and left me with the expectation of learning more from these perspectives.


The exhibition consists of many sections structured around statements and queries like "Death can be spiritual." and "Your spirit might remain on Earth". In each of these sections, objects and artworks from different cultures and peoples are assembled together to showcase the multifaceted nature of the cultural understanding of and customs surrounding death around the world.


In the section titled “What will happen to my spirit?”, paintings and masks from China are displayed together with another painting from Japan to illustrate different beliefs towards the consequences souls face after one’s death. In the section “What will happen to my body?”, an infographic board about diamonds made of cremated remains (cremains) is displayed with antique silver urns.


I found myself noticing some facts that I did not know before going through these sections. Organizing the exhibition in this thematic and culturally inclusive manner offers the opportunity to enhance the understanding of the diversity of death in various cultures while also posing questions for the visitor to reflect on throughout the whole experience. At the exit, an interactive art project designed by author Candy Chang invites the visitors to share their thoughts and reflections on what they want to do before they die. Hundreds of post-its are organized in the shape of a tree as a public place to share personal inspirations.


Fig. 2 An interactive project for visitors to write down their thoughts before leaving the exhibition. Photo courtesy of Kexin Han.

While the exhibition effectively broadens understanding and encourages deep reflection, one question keeps coming to my mind, even weeks after my visit. Does combining these cultural information crumbs in one theme really provide the educational value for intercultural understanding?


Tasting a little of everything, but…


There is no way to deny that the exhibition did a great job in encapsulating the diversity of cultural perspectives toward death. However, this “tasting menu” method of presenting cultures might risk only skimming the surface rather than exploring the depths of each culture’s relationship with death. My afterthoughts about the exhibition mostly involve my own relationship and experience with death. From the cultural aspect, on the other hand, the experience only left a very minimal impression of something like “people from Mexico put up an ofrenda for the Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead)”. Is this the only death-related custom that is practiced in Mexico? Is there a place for me to find more information about the culture of death in Mexico? These details are lost in the vast sea of shallow representations of cultural understandings.


I started reflecting on the discussion of museum’s role in Booth and Powell’s article "Museums: From Cabinets of Curiosity to Cultural Shopping Experiences". One of the points emphasized is that the purpose of museums is to relate cultural meanings to audiences.¹ It is difficult to fulfill this purpose while the cultural facts are listed separately, like modern “cabinets of curiosity.”


Peeking at Others


When a great number of objects and artworks from different cultures are placed in the same room, it becomes complicated to represent them equally. If we look at the narratives created in the depiction of African-American funerals in New Orleans and the Chinese belief of Hell, the languages used are different in tone and depth. While the New Orleans’ story is constructed with interview quotes and photographs, the text label for the Chinese masks do not even have the names labeled in the original Chinese character. In Edward Said’s book Culture and Imperialism, he criticized the tendency to discuss and analyze imperialism as if it exists in a vacuum, isolated from broader historical, cultural, and political contexts.² The curatorial choices made in this exhibition, in my opinion, also isolate some cultures and their beliefs from their context. While the intention might be to showcase diversity, many cultures are only represented with a few objects dated at least a century ago. The image of these cultures are illustrated as phenomena of the past in foreign lands far away from where we are today. When some cultures are put in the frame of “us” and others are displayed as “them” in an exhibition, won’t it reinforce stereotypes or deepen the cultural misunderstandings?


Fig. 3 Two masks of 牛头(Niutou) and 泰山王(Tai Shan Wang) as a part to tell the story of the Court of the Hell in Chinese beliefs. Photo courtesy of Kexin Han.

Overall, Death: Life’s Greatest Mystery opens doors to the diverse worldviews surrounding death. At the same time, it also serves as a reminder for us, museum professionals, to pay more attention to the balance between showcasing diversity for diversity's sake and honouring each cultural narrative as equally valuable.

 

Next time you visit a themed exhibition like this one, let’s put on our mindful observer hats and critically examine how each culture is presented under the same topic.


Notes


1 Elizabeth Booth and Raymond Powell, “Museums: From Cabinets of Curiosity to Cultural Shopping Experiences,” in Tourism and Culture in the Age of Innovation, ed. Vicky Katsoni and Anastasia Stratigea, Springer Proceedings in Business and Economics (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2016), 131–43, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-27528-4_9.


2 Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism, 1st Vintage Books ed (New York: Vintage Books, 1994).


Further Reading




Noted at the request of the course instructor: This paper was written as an assignment for the course MSL215 Global Cultures and Museums (Fall 2023), instructed by Bruno R. Veras. I would like to thank him for his help in preparing this post.

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