The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

30 March 2011

Hop the Twenty-Sixth - Graves and Traces

Bel Deering, Rubbish Exhibits - Understanding Graveyard Visitors from the Traces They Leave Behind

People leave traces - we dispose of things, loose things - but they have to go somewhere. Cemetaries, like museums, are such places. We leave items there, and time figures itself in many different ways. In the traditional model of the cemetary, you might consider the exhibition to be the headstones and memorials. But perhaps the other traces which people leave behind, the detritus of engagement with the place, are equally powerful, or evidence of their nature as places of living history. Of course, people have long used the graveyard as spaces for ritual, and the recent rise of Dark Tourism has certainly served to foreground the contemporary influence of graveyards. They are contested spaces, very often, spaces of transgression not just between the living and the dead, but between the seen and unseen, the permitted and 'unpermitted' elements of the lives of the living.

But there are other, less glamourous elements of the graveyard. Rathje and Murphy, in 2001, noted that our garbage, in the future, holds a key to our pasts - and thus, to our presents. In garbology, a form of the study of the physical trace, we can present a picture which, whilst not full, can add to the presentation and understanding of a space or place. Erosion, of course, is a trace of its own - wether deliberately or just in their natural activity within the space, leaving footprints in the mud. They sit on trees and tombs, and thus through the erosion of environmental features you can read what occurs there.

Accretion also occurs, and addresses many of the same issues. So what do you find in the bin? Flowers deposited for mourning, drinks bottles. But people do not always deposit their detritus in the bin - and hide their rubbish in other discreet areas, perhaps in cracks in walls and tombs. Another layer of accretion is graffitti, on the cemetary furniture - but rarely on the graves. In graffitti, many people claim places and items for their own, perhaps expressing a fondness for a space. Such accretion tells us a lot about how people understand, appreciate and interact with spaces, and create, even, a sense of place in these places so often thought dead.

So much we interact in these places of the dead as we would in the places of the living - we eat, we drink, we walk, sit and make love. Perhaps this figures the graveyard as a space of transition, a different kind of liminal intermediary space. They are social spaces, inherently bound up with their particular surrounding environment, and the rubbish and material traces can tell us as much about this as the monuments and memorials can.

In behanving thus in cemetaries, we revivify the dead, we make the people once lost a part of our own present. In these acts, perhaps, we perform an acceptance of death, an absorbtion of it. We interact with loss, and perhaps, make it manageable for us. For in this, we understand that one day too, we shall be so much soil, so much detritus - so much stardust.

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