Death Salon Interviews Carla Valentine

In anticipation of Death Salon UK this April, we are finally returning to our series of interviews with the organizers behind Death Salon, starting with our 2014 Co-Chair, Carla ValentineHere you will learn more about each participant’s contributions to the Salon, their own fascinating body of work and more about Death Salon itself.
Tell us about Barts Pathology Museum and the collections there.

Barts Pathology Museum was purpose built in 1879 in a similar design to many medical museums of the time. Eminent doctors and surgeons of St Bartholomew’s Hospital added to the collection of potted specimens over time until it grew to over 5000 pots – the 4th largest collection in the UK. 

The museum’s heyday (in terms of teaching and study) was around the 1920s unit WWII. I think that after the war, people didn’t focus as much on death, and there was a steady decline in usage of the museum right into the 1990s when, post various human-tissue scandals in the press, it became more fashionable to use ‘virtual reality’ to teach the topic.

However, as these things often do, perceptions of the museum have come full circle. In the hands of Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry (part of Queen Mary University of London) the space has undergone a renaissance, particularly since October 31st 2011 when I was appointed the museum’s only full-time member of staff, specifically to repair and conserve the collection. Concurrently with that project I have organised a successful series of evening and weekend events to engage the public, and medical staff and students, with the collection and related topics: history of medicine, literature, art, pathology, anatomy and epidemiology to name a few.

Death Salon UK is one of a long line of unusual events and workshops which I hope will open a public dialogue with a usually clandestine topic.

Can you tell us about your career path that led you to running Barts?
I studied Forensic and Biomolecular Science at University (after taking a year out to work as an embalmer’s assistant and Quality Assurance Scientist). During my studies I approached our local mortuary to ask if I could volunteer (as you do!) because I was already interested in mortuary work and I felt it would supplement my studies (which encompassed toxicology, physical anthropology and more – all things I could learn about in the ‘real world’)

You can only enter mortuary positions full-time in the UK as a trainee and you need to do vocational qualifications once you’ve been employed – places are very rare and competitive. I was therefore very lucky a position opened up during my time volunteering and I never hesitated to apply – I’ve never looked back. Here it takes two years to achieve your Certificate in Anatomical Pathology Technology (CAPT) and then a further two to get your Diploma (DAPT) – the Diploma is necessary to carry out High-Risk work and manage a mortuary and other APT’s.

I enjoyed it immensely but after eight years, feeling like there was nothing left for me to achieve or experience, I applied for the position at Barts which would encompass my love of pathology and anatomy as well as history, art and much more. I got the job and the rest, as they say, is history!


Can you tell us about the academic death community in London? How will this version of Death Salon have a particularly British flair?
In London, there isn’t much of an academic ‘death community’ per se – I’d say it’s actually a lot more artistic and encompasses people like Nikki who created “Art Macabre” death drawing and artists like Eleanor Crook. When I began working with that community to explore cultural aspects of death and mortality I realised two things: 1) Some people still find it difficult to discuss death, even in an environment like the Pathology Museum, and I’ve had to push to show that the events can open up a dialogue which can be built on, and 2) Many of the death academics are actually based at the University of Bath which has a dedicated Centre for Death and Society, so we really needed to bring them to London to show the capital (and therefore the rest of the UK) that’s it’s ok, and in fact necessary, to discuss this issue.

I think the British flair for this event will come from the very rich, very dark history, particularly in London – a city hit by fires, plagues and Jack the Ripper. That history will help to put our modern ‘squeamishness’ about discussing death into context.

What are you most looking forward to about Death Salon UK?

The thing I’m most looking forward to about Death Salon UK is finally getting to meet some of my US counterparts! Twitter is wonderful for fostering friendships but it’s not the same as meeting up and chatting over a beer. It will be wonderful to meet the people I’ve had so much contact and discussion with, and also bring to British shores the more relaxed US culture of discussing mortality and mourning.

To learn more about Carla Valentine visit her website Past Mortems 

Megan Rosenbloom is the co-founder and director of Death Salon. She is a medical librarian who works with history of medicine and rare books and a proud member of The Order of the Good Death. 

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