Prague: Death Exhibition at the National Museum

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Remember that death series happening around Prague that I mentioned in my last post? (You can just scroll on down to it if you don’t, not that it really matters.)  Well, to carry on with that, here’s the exhibition at the new building of the National Museum, which is right next to the old building, at the end of Wenceslas Square.  As far as I can tell, the old building is currently under construction, so only the new building has exhibitions in it, and even then, it appeared to be limited to two temporary ones.  It’s 160 CZK if you want to see both of them, but the Noah’s Ark exhibit seemed like it was aimed at children, so I opted to pay 100 CZK (around 3 quid) to see just the death exhibit.  Until now, I couldn’t figure out why it was called SMRT; because it was all caps with no vowels, I assumed it was some kind of acronym (or a Simpsons joke), but it turns out that smrt means death in most Slavic languages.  No idea how you say it with no vowels though! Smert?

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The death exhibition is on the ground floor of the building, and turned out to be divided into three separate sections.  The first was called “Life and Death in the History of the Earth” and was more like a natural history exhibit, with lots of taxidermied animals and facts about death in the animal kingdom.  Fortunately, this being a major museum, everything was translated into English.  However, rather oddly for a new exhibition, the signs had a dated look to them.  I don’t know, the whole exhibition felt rather old-fashioned, which is no bad thing, but not what you’d expect from a large national institution in this day and age.  So there was plenty to read, but not really anything interactive, which was ok as at least it meant there weren’t many children in attendance (well, because of that and the subject matter, I suppose).

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My favourite aspect of the exhibition was the creative manner in which some of the things were translated into English.  For example, the description of that vulturey type bird above as “bad-looking.”  Delightful.  After a few rooms discussing various types of predators and poisonous (and venomous) plants and animals, the exhibit segued into ancient burial practices, with a display of some mummies and skeletons.  There were also some items found in the burial ground of a medieval monastery.

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This section of the exhibition was by far the largest, and I particularly liked the skull-lined room in the narrow hallway leading out of it.  However, the next section, called “Dealing with Death,” was probably the most interesting, at least to my morbid sensibilities.  It began with a discussion of anatomy, and some early modern anatomists like (my favourite) Frederik Ruysch (love his work), and then progressed into the various ways people die.  So there were some exciting stories of famous Czech murder cases, a re-creation of a crime scene, and a whole room full of execution devices, most of which appeared to have actually been used. The wheel, used for smashing people’s bones systematically until they eventually died, was probably the most horrible (they’d smash your vital organs first if they liked you, otherwise you had to wait until after your limbs and stuff got broken), but the scaffold creeped me out a bit too, as that had definitely been used at some point. (For more on historical methods of execution, The Faithful Executioner is worth a read, although all the conjecture gets a little annoying.)

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There was also an educational room about suicide, which broke down the methods people use by gender, as well as the suicide rates of various professions.  And some posters discussing famous people who had committed suicide.  Most moving of all was the part on end-of-life care, which carried on into the main hall of the museum with a film about an older gentleman who’d moved into hospice.  I watched a few minutes of it, and it seemed sad, yet honest and informative (I didn’t want it to turn into another Up ordeal where I started crying in public, so I wasn’t going to watch the whole thing in case the guy died at the end).

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The final section, entitled “Dealing with Death and Funeral Rituals” was by far the smallest and was again mostly an overview of ancient funeral customs, with some Greek and Roman objects found in grave sites, but also included things like funeral music (with headphones for listening), and some of the items used in modern embalming techniques.  This was probably the least enjoyable section, for me, as a lot of it was on religion and anthropology, which admittedly aren’t my favourite topics.

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I guess this exhibition wasn’t quite what I was hoping for (I think I had something less natural history related, and more goth in mind, maybe), but it wasn’t bad, for all that it felt rather dated.  I really did like the second section on “Dealing with Death” quite a lot, and for three pounds, it was a decent way to spend an hour. I’m happy that something like this was offered, as I think death is a fascinating topic, even if some of the content wasn’t necessarily what I would have preferred.  3/5.



    1. Yes, the wheel was probably one of the more memorable executions in a book filled with horrible methods of execution. Being buried alive also seemed pretty grim. For some reason, I always thought breaking on the wheel meant they strapped you to an actual giant wheel and broke your bones, rather than just smashing you with a wheel. I mean, either way it would suck, but I’m not sure why it had to be wheel-shaped if they weren’t actually utilising the power of the wheel. Seems like a big heavy stick would do the job just as well.

      1. Yes, I also envisioned being strapped to a wheel rather than the executioner having to hold up a truly massive wheel to break the bones! Ah definitely, there is no good execution method I don’t think – but some are certainly less painful and protracted than others. I’ve lways wondered about the osteoarchaeological evidence for wheel breaking victims, seen a few papers on hung, drawn and quartering, but non on this.

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