Remember that you must die…

Its a worrying title for a blog, but ‘remember that you must die’ or ‘memento mori’ in Latin, was a common saying that our historical counterparts took to heart. Popular from the 16th to the 19th centuries, memento moris can can be anything from pocket watches, pendants, rings, ribbon slides, even statues and walking sticks. Some carried a lock of hair from a departed loved one, woven into a scene. Most show skeletons, skulls or coffins and – not for the faint-hearted - decaying corpses.

Memento mori, England, 1810-1850 (A78828, Science Museum, London)

Most of these items are in our store, but they recently got a rare outing, many of them for the first time. The Rubin Museum of Art in New York held an exhibition Remember That You Will Die: Death Across Culture bringing together their own fabulous collection of Himalayan art with Western material culture.

My favourite object that went on loan was this:

Pocket watch, 1700-1930 (A103905, Science Museum, London)

A watch could not be a more perfect reminder of the shortness of life. On the watch face is a small inscription meaning ‘time flies’ to hammer the message home. The thing that makes this object even more remarkable is it that it was once owned by Queen Mary, wife of British monarch George V. She presented it to Henry Wellcome at Buckingham Palace in 1931 to add to his enormous collection.

Much to my colleagues’ envy, I’ve been asked to courier the loan back to Britain. Loans take a lot of organising, the lions’ share by our Collections Registry and Conservation teams. But couriering is not glamorous - there’s a lot of waiting around in cargo sheds at 5am and once you’ve seen one aircraft hanger, you’ve seen them all. I must admit I will be keeping to myself that I’m travelling with memento moris so not to scare the more nervous flyers….

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