November 2 is the Day of the Dead, a colourful Mexican festival where people remember friends and family members who have died. A perfect day to have a look at some of our objects which represent the dead …
First off there are death masks, used both to commemorate the famous and the criminal. This death mask of Benjamin Disraeli was taken six hours after he died in 1881.
Wax death mask of Benjamin Disraeli
We’ve also got some slightly gruesome anatomical models:
Wax model of a female human head
Such models would normally be made as educational tools, but were also part of the strong aesthetic tradition which linked art and anatomy.
We also have a whole range of vanitas figures and memento mori – reminding the living of the transience of life and the inevitability of death. Snakes and frogs are a common feature of such figures, and I’m told that the use of the frog reflects the dramatic changes of form it goes through during its life cycle, making it a potent symbol of change and renewal.
Ivory model of a skull and a human head
Finally, some encourage a sense of fatalistic humour about the end of life:
Ivory model of a human skull with moving parts
Yes, the tongue pokes out and the eyes roll up. What more could you ask for in a memento mori?
I’m just back from a conference in Dresden. The Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, home to the wonderful transparent man (and woman), hosted a conference looking at wax moulages.
Moulages are based on casts taken directly from patients, which are then moulded in wax to present case studies of particular diseases, especially dermatological conditions. Each one has its own medical and cultural story to tell, at once a medical specimen, an individual’s history as a patient, and cultural artefact.
These examples are from our collection, and were part of a touring anatomical show in the 1920s. These ‘before and after’ waxes show the effects of Salvarsan, the ‘magic bullet’ which was the first effective treatment for syphilis.
One of the great things about the conference was the sense that all kinds of people are getting interested in moulages again. The Charité Museum in Berlin is working on a project documenting moulage collections, while the Hôpital St Louis has its collections online. But also at the conference were people reviving the craft skills and not only preserving but making new moulages. Dermatologists use them to teach students about once common diseases which are now rare and you can even buy bleeding moulages for casualty simulations. Or perhaps Hallowe’en…
It’s great to see the value of items that for while looks like they might be considered as historical ‘curiosities’ being recognised again.