A Love Letter to the Little Museum

 

 

We all know the big guns; the British Museum, the Rijksmuseum, the Louvre, the Smithsonian, the Guggenheim and so on. These bustling hubs of historical and artistic scholarship welcome millions of visitors each year and some visitors travel across literal oceans to see the artefacts that have captured their imaginations since childhood. When I travelled to London for a palaeography summer school, I was so excited that Senate House was close enough to the British Museum to allow a trip to see the Rosetta Stone. The story of the stele had enchanted me since I was in primary school – how amazing that a stone once used as building material was the key to deciphering hieroglyphs – and to see it in person was nothing short of magical. However as much as I love the British Museum, this Valentine’s Day I am giving my heart to another. This is a love letter to the small folk museums, heritage museums, maritime museums, agricultural museums and historic houses that bejewel the landscape of the UK.

These museums, which are often run mostly (if not exclusively) by volunteers, welcome guests in the thousands rather than the millions, but this by no means makes them less worthy of praise than their monolith counterparts. In fact, I would argue that they have a massive impact on their communities. Through storytelling, dress up and activity packs, children learn the stories of those who have come before them. Museums allow them to make emotional and empathetic connections to history which could never be gained from a textbook. Events and exhibitions allow families to spend time together and create memories on a budget. For those who have watched their community change over their lifetime, museums and historic buildings provide a chance to reminisce about times gone by and tell their own oral histories. Small museums by their nature are niche, containing a wealth of information on their locale which historians, genealogists, and any interested amateur can get lost in.

Children areas

On a purely selfish note, Saint Andrews Preservation Trust Museum, ‘my’ little museum, has allowed me to gain invaluable work experience, both as a tour guide and behind the scenes. I have learned how to use Adlib software and helped at Museums at Night events. But more importantly, I have been able to have a lot more access to the inner workings of the museum than I would be afforded at a larger institution. I have met trustees and board members and had unfiltered access to the curator’s extensive knowledge of the industry. I have met the people who have lovingly put exhibits together to pay homage to the town that they have loved and lived in their entire lives. Over the next two months, I will be helping create an exhibition on St Andreans during WWI. This immeasurable fulfillment has come directly from this little museum and those who pour their heart and soul in to its upkeep, and I am so thankful for it.

This Valentine’s Day, send some love to your local historic building or museum for whilst they are little, they are so, so important.

 

Book Review: From Here to Eternity

 

 

Book Review: From Here to Eternity, Caitlin Doughty

I was first introduced to Caitlin Doughty by a friend who recommended her YouTube channel Ask A Mortician. Due to experiencing both a bereavement and a personal brush with death within an eighteen-month period, I was paralysed by a fear that something bad would happen to me or someone I cared about. I was anxious that it was negatively influencing how I was living (read: not living) my life. I was pretty sure the last thing I needed was to listen to someone talk about death, but I was quickly proved wrong. I was being incapacitated by a fear of the unknown and it was Caitlin Doughty, with her perfect bangs and cheerfulness (and taxidermy), who opened the door on the world of death literacy. Through her videos, Doughty broke down the stigma around talking about death and gave me a space to confront what was troubling me. Remember, Deathlings, you will die.

It is unorthodox to start a book review, a piece which is by nature about the book you are reading, by talking about yourself. However, I think it highlights the profound effect that Doughty has on the lives of those who follow her. In a Western culture which deems any talk of death a taboo, most of us have become ill-prepared for facing the death of loved ones and ourselves. Doughty’s debut, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, is a moving account of her journey into the funeral business. Her second book, From Here to Eternity, is a global tour of death practices, shedding light on the differences between cultures but also highlighting the universal qualities of mortality and bereavement.

There is always an element of voyeurism to learning about another culture’s rituals, but Doughty is aware of this and approaches each chapter with the sensitivity it deserves. What makes From Here to Eternity stand out from the online listicles and videos on ‘weird death rituals’ is precisely that she does not sensationalise or fetishize these practices. Instead, Doughty takes us on her travels as a guest, grateful and appreciative to be allowed into these private moments. By providing the stories of the people featured within the book, both deceased and living, we are reminded that it is the same deep love and respect for the deceased behind each practice, despite how different they look to each other.

Following suit from her debut, From Here to Eternity does not flinch away from difficult topics, such as the loss of an unborn child. Doughty shares the moving and poignant story of fellow death acceptance activist Sarah Chevez, whose reconnection with her Mexican heritage gave her the space to grieve her loss. From Here to Eternity covers expansive ground, both geographically and thematically, exploring not just the practicalities of different death practices themselves, but the tensions and issues that arise from them. From the contentious relationships between traditional magic and religion to the use of technology to honour the forgotten dead, Doughty provides a comprehensive and nuanced depiction of each culture’s practise. Woven throughout the book is Doughty’s trademark humour. Humour and death may seem like strange bedfellows, but many of these death rituals are times of celebration and gaiety as well as poignancy. What’s more, sharing a chuckle with Doughty felt like a small subversive triumph over death itself; you can’t be afraid of something whilst laughing at it.

From Here to Eternity is also a visually stunning book. Landis Blair’s illustrations capture the beauty of the death traditions. Some are busy scenes of ritual celebration, some are quiet and meditative. I sincerely hope that the frontispiece illustration is available as a print because it is a striking Memento Mori. Not just a traditional ‘remember you will die’ but a ‘remember you can return to the earth. There are options out there aside from those encouraged by the mercenary funeral industry.’ A sentiment which very much encapsulates the message of From Here to Eternity.

Book Review: The Butchering Art

 

 

 

The Butchering Art, Dr Lindsey Fitzharris’ debut, follows the life of Joseph Lister, the ‘father of modern surgery’ and pioneer of antiseptic surgery. The book isn’t purely a biography though. Fitzharris’ style flits expertly between time and space, seamlessly bestowing little morsels of medical history knowledge without any cost to the narrative. In a relatively short book, Fitzharris explores medical advancements from America, Continental Europe, and of course, Edinburgh and London- making this book a must-read for anyone interested in the pioneers of modern surgery.

The Butchering Art dishes the dirt on the unsanitary hospitals of the past, detailing the devastating effects of the ‘big four’-erysipelas, gangrene, septicaemia and pyaemia- on the wards. Nowadays, the wealthy choose to be treated in private hospitals but during Lister’s time, those who could afford it were treated at home on their dining room tables. It seems a foreign concept to a modern reader but with postoperative infection ravaging the wards it was the safer option. Fitzharris doesn’t skimp on the gruesome details either. She perfectly captures the brutal nature of pre-anaesthetic surgery, recounting an incident were celebrated surgeon Robert Liston broke down a door and dragged a terrified patient back to the operating table to which he was subsequently bound. Liston is painted as brilliant, all fierceness and fire.

By introducing the reader to Robert Liston before Lister, Fitzharris creates an artful juxtaposition between Liston’s showmanship and Herculean strength and Lister’s contemplative quietness. Born a Quaker, Lister was mild, well-mannered and polite in the face of his rival’s criticism. I had no idea that a book which details the development of antiseptic surgery would be such an emotionally gripping read. Fitzharris describes Lister with such tenderness that I became quickly invested in his journey. I have read other reviews of The Butchering Art which lament Lister’s ‘amiable’ nature, asserting that perhaps a more hot-tempered nature would have made for a better story. I disagree. Lister’s cool methodical nature was precisely what surgery needed after the introduction of anaesthesia, when speed was no longer such a pressing issue. Lister’s breakthroughs weren’t made in Robert Liston’s brutal and bloody operating theatre, but under the microscope – a tool which his own father had advanced.

One thing I really appreciate about The Butchering Art is its focus on the surgeons and physicians themselves. Fitzharris provides humanizing and touching details about the lengths the surgeons took to be as compassionate as possible to their patients, whom they knew weren’t likely to survive. The book also highlights how dangerous it was to be a surgeon which is something I had never previously considered. An accidental nick with a scalpel and a surgeon could die of one of the very infections he was fighting so hard to eradicate.

Overall, The Butchering Art is an amazing debut; Fitzharris doesn’t just describe the world of Victorian medicine, she transports you there. The Butchering Art is a testament to the stoicism of the pioneers who fought an uphill battle against injury and disease. The history of medicine has so many facets, and I can only hope that Fitzharris writes a book for each and every one of them!