I’ve spent a lot of today in a museum, and it occurred to me that in many ways, museums are modern, secular temples to the ancestors. Whatever the focus of a museum is, they tend to have in common artefacts from times past, and narratives about them. If you hold a vision of reality that embraces all that has been before as ancestry, then there’s even room with natural history museums. Natural history tends to have a lot of human history wrapped around it too – who found what, how we made species extinct, and so forth.
The objects on display in a museum create a very immediate connection to the past. Sometimes, one you are allowed to put your hands on. Where it’s permitted, I generally touch. I like the process of making physical contact with the past. Museums tend also to carry a lot of speculation about meaning, and there may also be religious items. I’ve seen a fair few charms today, and stones from shrines. I find it very hard encountering those behind glass, set up with little labels and all in together, not on the land they were made for, or in the place where they were sacred. But that’s the nature of museums.
I’m torn between relishing the beauty of grave goods and feeling uneasy about them. So much of what we know comes from things buried alongside the dead. But those things were buried for a reason, and most of us would be deeply uneasy if those ancestral possessions were only a few generations old. I’d hate to walk into a museum and see the items my Gran was buried with, for a start. There’s a tension here between intellect and emotion, between wanting a sense of connection, and not feeling that this is the right way to do it. I don’t really have any solutions.
Then there are the bones. Most human history museums will have some human bones somewhere, in my experience. A local ancestor of place, laid out for public scrutiny. This is not the blog post in which to tackle the many issues and ethics. It’s too big a topic. Today in a Cirencester museum I saw, for the first time in my life, a warning that an exhibit contained real human remains. I wondered what made them decide to put the sign up. The young man was laid out as he had been found, with his grave goods in position around him. He’s close to where he came from, geographically speaking. He’s still got his things, but we can see them. That feels like a step in the right direction, a balancing act.
I always pause to pay my respects to the dead, and I always find myself thinking how brief human life is, how precious and fleeting it all is. The animal dead catch me much the same way, but not the fossils. I have no idea why. They have transformed, I suppose, as much rock as remnant of life.