My mum took me to visit Bristol City Museum from a very young age, so experiencing museums and how they collect, archive and display our stories has always been of interest to me. This has been brought sharply into focus in 2021 with the death of my dad and the subsequent need to empty out the bungalow he shared with my mum for over twenty years. My mum remains in the specialised Dementia care home she has been living in since 2019 which I wrote about here. In this post I explore my own personal experience of bereavement and attempts to make meaning out of what my parents have left behind. Sally J Morgan wrote about the impact of her father’s death on her artistic practice,
His suffering and death had a profound impact on me. It was something I needed to explore through art, not for the sake of catharsis, because I wasn’t looking to cure my grief, rather I was compelled to look squarely at the fact of mortality and the affect of bereavement. Inherent in this interrogation was the tension between ‘fact’
and ‘feeling’ and the limits of both when trying to make sense of the condition of being human.
Through looking at archives and historiography in my PhD research (which focuses on Arnolfini’s Education archives), I already have a little understanding about what it is to receive a mess, an arbitrary disordered collection of physical remnants, that I am in turn charged with making meaning from. This blogpost is speculative and written with a sense of curiosity about how my own personal experience might shed light on and seep into my PhD practice.
Death, dying and grief demands a sifting and reordering of who you believe yourself to be, your memories and also your physical belongings. This is true not only for the person who is dead or dying but for everyone surrounding them. Due to their health my parents have not be able to prepare for this stage in their life. They have been unable to put their affairs in order; everything is uncared for and in disarray. As well as administrating what is left of my parents’ existence I am dealing with ephemera and precious keepsakes accumulated over 160 years of their combined lifetimes, along with things handed down from previous generations. It is overwhelming not only in terms of volume but emotionally too.
Creating my Dad’s funeral was an intense act of co-curation or collective caring. My Dad, a clockmaker, resisted death with a powerful life force. His wish to avoid death translated into an avoidance of talking to me about what he wanted at the end of life including his wishes for his funeral. In the end I was with him when he died and the majority of people attended dad's funeral online due to Covid. I worked with an interfaith celebrant to carefully craft a ceremony that acknowledged who my dad was alongside involving my brother in Germany and connecting with our extended family and friends.
Still from my dad's funeral service which was broadcast live and viewable for seven days afterwards.
My brother pre-recorded his contribution in Germany and the audio was played during the service - filling the space with his voice and memories. My brother was simultaneously watching virtually from his study at home. Our cousin Alison was also watching online and later painted this quote from some thoughts I shared in person and posted this photograph of her work on Facebook a couple of days later.
Our mourning was held both online and in a real place. The telling of who my dad was and our grief is being percolated and shared through many different forms, locations and removes.
Sooner or later a house clearance company will come and sweep all traces of my parents' presence out of the bungalow they loved so much and it will be sold to pay for my mum’s care. I can’t keep everything so I have been engaged in an intense process of finding a place for what I consider to be my parents’ most precious things. This has compounded my feeling that I don’t fully know who my parents are or were – I only know them from my perspective as their daughter. I work through their things with the constant fear I might throw out something precious or vital through an act of carelessness or ignorance. The weight of telling my parents’ histories and the preservation of my mum and dad’s identities literally teeters on what I find, recognise as holding value, manage to keep safe and make public.
Recently I have been sharing posts on my personal Facebook profile describing actions I have taken to care for my parents’ belongings. These actions have not been conceived of as an art work. The posts are typical Facebook fodder; conversational, autobiographical and heartfelt - referencing; the donation of my mum’s wedding dress to Bristol City Museum, my mum’s donation of my Grandma’s clothes to Taunton Museum and my donation of my mum's grocers scales to our local fruit and veg shop. The comments in the threads range from wishing me well to opening up dialogue about related experiences.
This is my way of creating connection and memorialising.
600 Highwaymen carefully crafted a connection between strangers in their art work A Thousand Ways, Part One – a phonecall. I took part in this piece on a Monday afternoon by making a telephone call and being guided through a highly structured conversation with someone I have, and will likely never meet. As the conversation evolved we were taken deeper into where we were and who believed ourselves to be including recalling childhood photographs and envisioning qualities we shared with previous generations. Time stood still as I moved between different rooms in my home, giving voice to my unspoken internal archive and absorbing the presence of an other. We are now held, existing in each other’s imaginaries.
This holding in imaginary is what I believe museums and archival institutions promise us - or we hope they can offer us.
It is what I will do for my parents and for all the archives I work with.
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee
Sonnet 18: Shall I compare the to a summer’s day?, William Shakespeare
In memory of Maurice Harold Bossom, 4 November 1934 - 9 February 2021.