Some after thoughts

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
Heaven and Hell and Other Worlds of the Dead. Royal Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh until February 11.

It may not be the cough that carries you off, but you can still learn how to build a coffin. Deedee Cuddihy reports on an exhibition that takes you to Heaven, Hell and back.

And remember, your window must be smaller than the coffin lid!" So says Anna Taylor, organiser of the children's Mexican arts and crafts workshops at the Heaven and Hell exhibition at the Royal Museum of Scotland. She was addressing a class of Primary 7s who were taking part in a "Design and Make" session.

The workshops are running in conjunction with a major multicultural exhibition on death, entitled "Heaven and Hell and Other Worlds of the Dead".

The show, which continues until February 11, explores beliefs about the afterlife and celebrates the world's rich diversity of deathly rituals, superstitions, traditions and attitudes.

The exhibition is proving to be one of the most popular mounted at the Chambers Street museum in recent years, with children in particular responding enthusiastically to displays such as a Mexican Days of the Dead market stall.

The stall, typical of those you would find in present-day Mexico at the end of October (when the Days of the Dead festival takes place), is piled high with tiny, brightly decorated sugar skulls, toy coffins and colourfully dressed skeletons which, in their home country, would be bought and given as gifts to friends and family. Purchasers can even have the skulls personalised with names and initials.

Heaven and Hell is a big but not overwhelming exhibition of more than 350 objects displayed around six themes in a deceptively low-key and subdued way. Time has to be taken to stop and stare - and read the labels - to fully appreciate the significance of what is on show.

A set of intricately carved wooden forks, for instance, becomes much more interesting when you discover they were used by high priests in Fiji during the 19th and early 20th centuries to sample the (cooked) flesh of a slain enemy.

A rather dull-looking book cover turns out to have been made from the skin of the infamous Edinburgh body snatcher, William Burke, following his execution in 1829. Other displays include the fabulous coffins and grave goods of an ancient Egyptian queen and her child (the most complete of its kind outside Egypt), a selection of contemprary shrouds ("non-toxic and combustible") from an Edinburgh funeral company and an amazing selection of the kinds of modern paper goods, such as replica mobile phones and fridge freezers, that the Chinese burn in honour of their dead.

The exhibition ends with portraits of 20th century personalities who became universal icons after their deaths, a series of video interviews with people talking about their particular belief system, and an interesting selection of some of the new, environmentally-friendly coffins made from wicker, cardboard and that Changing Rooms favourite - MDF.

In the museum's IT room, visitors can log on to a choice of 200 websites (including one dealing with modern-day mummification) that complement the show.

Meanwhile, in the education room, the P7s from Echline Primary, Edinburgh are tackling the construction of their own Days of the Dead toy coffins, featuring a string mechanism that causes a window in the coffin lid to open and a tiny skull to pop out.

Anna Taylor has given the children a short, introductory talk on Mexico and the festival when the whole country takes time out to celebrate in memory of their dearly departed.

The class decorate their coffins with sequins, little bows and far too much glitter and are reminded by Anna to write a light-hearted message (another Mexican tradition) inside the lid. "Wish you were here," says one, cryptically.

Although these children obviously enjoyed the design and make session ("totally cool" according to some), schools don't need to take part in a workshop to benefit from the exhibition. They can have a guided tour or guide themselves.

Jem Fraser, head of education at NMS, says: "The exhibition provides an opportunity to explore world-wide beliefs and practices concerning death and, therefore, offers a truly multicultural approach to this universal subject.

"It gives visitors an awareness of the variety of beliefs held in the world and across time.

"The show can be used to raise some sensitive issues, such as what happens when we die? Will we come back in another life or will there be nothing at all? In the curriculum, it covers religious and moral education and multicultural education as well as expressive arts."

For further information, contact the education department on 0131 247 4206 or More workshops will run from November 27-31

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