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Death, Materiality and the Origin of Time (completed)

Eventually, we all have to die. But does that mean that time ends, or may we live on in other times - or other shapes? This project explores how human beings' relation to death may inform us about our relation to and understanding of time.

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The DMT project model

About the project

While 'time' in itself is a rather abstract phenomenon, we constantly sense time through our material environment. Changes in the body, the accumulation of photos in the family album, the observation of decayed buildings and materials, handling personal objects that make deceased friends and family present; in different ways such concrete sensate engagements give access to time.

DMT explores how humans, in different historical periods and different geographical settings, relate to time and death through such concrete, material practices. This brings together a number of diverse cases ranging from Danish Middle Neolithic burials and mummification in ancient Egypt over reincarnation in Siberia and gradual death in Papua New Guinea to the ongoing movement of deceased relatives in Uganda and the use of commemorative websites in Denmark.

All these diverse case studies are brought togwether in a number of design experiments, which will eventually materialise in an exhibition at Museum of Cultural History (KHM) in 2015.

DMT runs from august 2011 to September 2015. Apart from traditiojnal archaeological and anthropological research the project will organise a number of workshops and design experiments, where researchers, artists and museum professionals will geto together to explore some of the central questions raised in research through object installations.


DMT is based on five individual research projects, ranging in time from Stone Age to the present, and covering as diverse geographical regions as Denmark, Papua New Guinea, Sibiria and Uganda. A common concern to all projects is the question of how material engagements with matters of death may open for different relations to and understandings of time.

Rane Willerslev (KHM) works on the relation between suicide and voluntary death among the Chukchi of Siberia. Voluntary death, which is still practiced among the Chukchi, involves the killing of an often ill and aged family member who requests to die at the hands of close relatives. This practice is seen as a praiseworthy death. But how are suicides regarded among the Chukchi ? Are the souls of thos who committed suicide believed to go to the ancestral world later to reborn in infants as  do the souls of the voluntarily killed, or are they 'lost' in time?

Peter Bjerregaard (KHM) explores matters of time and materiality in relation to museums and collections. Museums have been compared metaphorically to church yards or mausoleums. In the museum, objects are displaced from their proper relation, finding their final resting place in the secluded storage of the museum or in sterile showcases. But maybe, rather than understanding the museum object in terms of its origin, we should what new experiences of time and space that may be generated from engaging with collections comprising various times and places.

Anders Emil Rasmussen (KHM) looks at the prolonged 'gradual death' among the Titans of Papua New Guinea. In anticipation of death a Titan starts to distribute personal skills and objects. This process is related to a life after death (and death before death), where the deceased will re-appear through the was in which others demonstrate his skills or thorugh the personal objects. Thus attending to the practices of gradual death allows us explore how the idea of 'the person' transgresses conventional fixations in time and space.

Tim Flohr Sørensen (Aarhus Universitet) explores our relation to time through the dead body. Danish Middle Neolithic (3300-3100 BC) commemorative processes were characterised by prolonged, repetitious and highly sensous engagements with the dead. After death, the position of a body was continuously changed for the bones finally to be broken in front of the tomb. In contrast, we seem to have a sensory distance to the the dead body today. What does this mean to our understanding of the time of the dead and the way in which the dead are commemorated?

Lotte Meinert (Aarhus Universitet) follows ongoing reburials in Acholi land in Northern Uganda. During 22 years of civil war survivors have buried most of their dead close to the refugee camps in land that does not belong to their own clans. This constitutes serious disporders in ancestor relations as the dead are supposed to return to original clan land to join the ancestor spirits. Therefore, initiatives have been taken to return to the refugge camps to the exhume the dead and bring them back for reburial. In this sense these burials mark both a wish to create permanence, bringing the dead in their proper place, and to end the disorders of the civil war.

Apart form the five core projects, DMT collaborates with a number of external researchers through publications and design experiments.

Published Nov. 15, 2012 3:23 PM - Last modified Jan. 11, 2021 8:43 AM