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Omens of Death at the Herbert

A fascinating new display is set to open in the Herbert’s What’s in Store gallery on Tuesday 25 February. Showcasing objects from the Herbert’s collections, many of which have never been seen by the public before, Omens of Death explores how different cultures around the world have experienced and reacted to death.

Through objects from each of the Herbert’s collections - social history, natural history, archaeology and visual arts - the display follows the journey from predictions and omens of death, through the experience of sacrifice and martyrdom, to funeral rites and commemoration.

Discover how a magnificent tawny owl, a raven and a piece of meteorite have been seen as warnings of impending death; explore Victorian mourning wear, Chinese burial customs and commemorations of British royalty; and see how death and sacrifice have been portrayed through art. The display is open until the end of April 2014.

Leah Mellors, Social History Trainee at the Herbert, led on the research and display of the items, and we asked her to share some thoughts on the experience.

“I was given the idea for a display on the theme of death by a colleague and I was intrigued by the idea, as I think death is a subject that everyone can relate to and that everyone has some level of curiosity about.

Death affects everyone at some point in their lives but the experience can differ greatly from person to person or between different cultures and religions. I wanted to use the Herbert’s collections to explore and compare some of the differing beliefs and practices surrounding death. However, I also wanted to highlight some of the beliefs that cross over cultures and religions. The Omens of Death case was a great way to do this, as many omens have been passed down through generations, showing up in different traditions around the world and throughout time. Similarly, it has been fascinating to research how diverse cultures share common burial rites, such as burying the dead with personal or symbolic items.

Working on this display has also been a great opportunity to showcase some of the objects that are usually tucked away in our stores. Some of the objects – including a burial shield, comb and some rosemary from the coffin of a nineteenth-century Coventry woman – have never been on display in the Herbert before.

I spent about three months working on researching and putting the display together, and I’m looking forward to seeing the response from visitors when it opens on the 25th.”