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The Sight of Death: Photography and the Museum

Meecham, Pam (2015) The Sight of Death: Photography and the Museum. In: Museums and Photography: Displaying Death. Routledge, London, New York. (Submitted)

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‘If museums do provoke conscious or unconscious thoughts of death and dying… an important issue would be the nature of those thoughts – there are many kinds of death awareness’ (O’Neill 2012: 68). Death and the museum, with foundations in mausoleum, reliquary and muse have long kept company. Momento mori: photographs too have deathly associations. Some, within the ‘realist mode’ (Sontag 1979) act as ‘a trace’ directly stencilled off reality, like a footprint or a death-mask’ (Wells 2000: 25). So it is unsurprising to find photographs of the dead and dying in the museum and in the case under discussion a gallery in a medical collection. Life before Death is a traveling, temporary exhibition that was displayed at the Wellcome Collection, Euston Road, London (the legacy of pharmacist and philanthropist Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936) during 2008. It has an after life on YouTube: sanctioned and unsanctioned. The exhibition is the result of journalist Beate Lakotta and the veteran photographer Walter Schels combined interviews and photographs of 24 terminally ill residents in North German hospices. The ensuing black and white photographs and interview text panels were according to the gallery information, a chance to give the participants ‘one more opportunity to be heard’. Two square format photographs of each person (covering a wide age range) are shown (left) with vital signs and (right) in a posthumous postscript: a before and after approach. The almost forensic close-up images are cropped with the face close to the photograph’s edge and show us life and subsequent death in ‘traditional’ documentary detail. Viewed within a medical setting they are perhaps close to but avoid clinical observation. This paper considers that despite contemporary theory to the contrary we often still ascribe to the photograph a form of realism: because the photograph’s ability to ‘appear iconic not only contributes an aura of authenticity, it also seems reassuringly familiar’ (Wells 2000: 18). Photography’s capacity to evoke ‘a disturbing literalism’ (Jordan in Brades 1997: 101) is borne out by visitor responses to the portraits a point to which I will return. The portraits are not paintings and as such have provoked a range of reactions that arguably paintings would not. The relations and practices within which discourses are formed and operate are crucial here; the historic and contemporary context of the medical museum within which these photographs were displayed raises many issues: only some of which are the subject of this chapter.

Item Type: Book Section
Controlled Keywords: Photography, Death, Museums
Depositing User: Atira Pure
Date Deposited: 18 Dec 2014 14:02
Last Modified: 29 Jan 2015 09:57
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