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Exploring mourning in a fascinating showcase

A montage of artefacts featured in The Abbey House Museum's Remembrance exhibition

Nostalgic smells, voted by members of the public as the most evocative reminders of much-missed relatives, are an unusual feature of an exhibition with a focus on the ways we mourn.

The exhibition, at Abbey House Museum in Leeds features “smell boxes” for visitors to sniff, which include scents such as carbolic soap, tomato plants and tobacco smoke.

A manufactured Victorian mourning ornament in memory of a motherManufactured mourning tributes such as this sentimental ceramic centrepiece, were popular in the 19th century

It’s part of a showcase called Remembrance which explores how we mourn people and keep their memory alive, as well as showcasing a rich historic and cultural diversity of mourning traditions.

Members of the public have also lent tokens of remembrance to the museum, that paint a fascinating picture of the ways we memorialise people we love.

Personal mementos loaned to The Remembrance exhibition at Abbey House Museum, Leeds Members of the public have loaned personal mementos that tell the story of their loved one’s life

They have gone on display with vintage and antique objects of mourning from the museum archives, including Victorian embroidered samplers and seashells engraved with sentimental memorial inscriptions.

One particularly poignant item is a pair of child’s clogs, which date back to early 1900s when child mortality rates were still high.

“These were clearly never worn, but kept in memory of a young child who died,” says Patrick Bourne, assistant community curator at Abbey House.

A pair of unworn child's clogsThese clogs, unworn, were once hung by a grieving father on his child’s bedroom door

“The exhibition also includes memorial ‘Dead Man’s Penny’ medals, which were sent to every family who’d lost a son in the First World War.”

Remembrance reflects how the 1914 – 1918 war inspired a huge surge of interest in spiritualism and seances, as people desperately sought ways to cope with their terrible loss.

Personal reminders of special people who died in World War OneGrieving families began to treasure more personal mementos in the 20th century, like these, from the First World War

The objects on display also show how people’s everyday belongings came to replace bespoke and shop-bought tokens of mourning.

“There’s a hat belonging to a young woman, which was kept by her mother in her memory,” says Patrick.

A felt hat that reminded a grieving mother of her daughterThis felt hat from the 1950s was a treasured reminder of 22-year old Rosetta Rowley for her grieving mother

Today, he says, we remember our loved ones in many different ways.

“Many people set up a legacy page or online memorial, make photo albums or use cremation ashes to create a china cup or vinyl record.

“Any object – a book, a plant, or a piece of clothing – can remind us of the person we’ve lost.”

The Abbey House Museum exhibition, which runs until December 30 complements a ‘mourning warehouse’ and funeral parlour, which are permanent features of the museum’s Victorian street display.

Abbey House Museum street displayAbbey House Museum has recreated Victorian Leeds in its permanent street display

In Victorian Leeds, Frederick Forster’s was one such mourning warehouse, which sold a full range of mourning paraphernalia and widows’ weeds.

Mourning customs

It also shows how rituals and colours of mourning clothes can differ according to culture and beliefs. The exhibition features Sikh funeral clothes, an embroidered Torah mantle and also shines a light on Roma Gypsy mourning customs.

An embroidered Torah mantleThis beautiful Torah mantle was loaned to the exhibition by the Leeds United Hebrew Congregation

The Remembrance exhibition is part of a death-positive programme of events being held in Leeds through 2018, called Living With Dying.

Coordinated by Leeds University, it aims to encourage people to open up more about death.

Leeds University social historian Dr Laura King helped curate the museum exhibition and is a Living With Dying co-ordinator who’s behind wider research into the traditions and rituals of death and mourning.

“Death is still a bit of a taboo subject, but in many ways we’re more open than previous generations,” she says.

“Movements like Dying Matters and Death Cafes taking place across Britain are trying to encourage people to talk about it more.”

Notes from visitors have been pegged to the museum's Victorian mantlepieceThese notes from young visitors suggest the Remembrance exhibition has already got people talking

“We want to open up the conversation about mourning, and get people talking more about death and dying,” agrees Patrick Bourne.

Dr King hopes the Abbey House Museum exhibition will prove a fascinating conversation-starter for visiting families.

“It’s also a way of using history to explore how people would like to be remembered in the future,” she adds.

  • The Remembrance exhibition runs at the Abbey House Museum, Kirkstall, Leeds, until December 30 2018.