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Bringing death into conversation

The CEM team

death: the human experience

Capacity and end of life care agenda

19 December 2016

The winner of the University of Bristol Public Engagement Award 2015-2016 was Professor Richard Huxtable and the Centre for Ethics in Medicine, of which he is the Director. They were awarded the prize for their collaborative approach with local and national organisations to discuss dying and death.

The Centre for Ethics in Medicine (CEM) is a multidisciplinary centre for research and teaching in health care ethics and law, based in the School of Social and Community Medicine. 2016 marked the 20th anniversary of the CEM.  

Since 2012, the CEM have been focusing heavily on public engagement with ethics and law at the end of life. Their aim has been to collaborate, regionally and nationally in a big conversation about death with industry professionals, members of the public, academics and children.

Richard Huxtable outlined the importance of this engagement as: ‘We all need to get involved in the discussion, shaping healthcare, shaping law in the right way for all of us.’

The range and scope of the CEM’s public engagement activities has been huge. Key projects include an exhibition with Bristol Museum, a performance titled The Nine O’Clock Slot with theatre company ice&fire, and multiple conferences, workshops and presentations for a variety of audiences.

The reach has been wide, with local, national and international media coverage, 74-280 attending presentations at a time and over 62,000 attending Bristol Museum’s exhibitions. Attendees have been from diverse fields including schoolchildren, professionals and academics.

On the CEM’s process, Richard commented: ‘We’ve engaged public and professional audiences in a variety of ways, from things you would ordinarily do as an academic, such as presentations and workshops, but we have also worked on interactive hands-on activities’.

A flagship event of the CEM’s was the award-winning death: the human experience at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery on Queens Road, Bristol. death: the human experience comprised two large exhibitions, which included historical artefacts about death, from Ghanaian fantasy coffins to the former Bristol General Hospital’s mortuary table.

The exhibitions also included a recreation of a Dignitas assisted dying room and a room to reflect and contemplate. death: the human experience ran from 24 October 2015—13 March 2016 and was extremely popular, with over 62,000 visitors attending and interacting with the exhibition.

The exhibitions were awarded Winner of ‘Most Innovative Death Public Engagement Event’ at the Good Funeral Awards 2016, and shortlisted for ‘Best Temporary Exhibition’ at Museums + Heritage Awards.

Huxtable collaborated with the Bristol Museum staff on this exhibition, with Huxtable sitting on the advisory board, contributing content text to the exhibitions, and chairing the accompanying over-subscribed debate titled Death and Dying. He commented that: ‘Although conversations about death and assisted dying are seen as quite difficult topics, there is an appetite to have these conversations’.

Sarah Purdy, Associate Dean and Head of the School of Social and Community Medicine, praised the CEM for their continually excellent standard of work and programme of public engagement:

‘The fact that the CEM remains at the forefront of public engagement in this field, and that Professor Huxtable and his staff are sought after and praised time and again for their work, speaks volumes about their ability as public communicators and their passion for the same.’ 

Further information

Centre for Ethics in Medicine website: www.bristol.ac.uk/social-community-medicine/centres/ethics/

CEM Twitter: twitter.com/bristolethics

death: the human experience: www.bristolmuseums.org.uk/bristol-museum-and-art-gallery/whats-on/death-human-experience/