History Slam Episode Twenty-Eight: Sabine Wieber and Death Masks

By Sean Graham

As the summer comes to an end, my reading list has recently included Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie and Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club while this PBS Frontline episode on facing death has found its way into my viewing schedule (all of which I would highly recommend). I’ve always found death and the end-of-life process rather interesting and while I understand that some would find such an interest morbid, I’m fascinated with the way in which we ignore death – or at least treat it as an abstract concept – in modern society. Despite the fact that we will all reach the end of our lives, we have a tendency to avoid discussion on the subject and, in my experience, treat is as an unspoken reality of life.

I’ve often thought that one of the reasons I’m interested in history is my fascination with death. As I’ve written before, a vast majority of historical figures suffer from the unfortunate medical condition of being deceased. The ramification for historians is that we are left to examine anything they left behind for glimpses into their lives. In doing so, we are essentially carrying on conversations (albeit one-sided conversations) with the dead. While physically these people may be gone, the work of the historian keeps their voices alive.

In this episode of the History Slam (the final one recorded at Congress 2013) I talk with Sabine Wieber of the University of Glasgow about her work on death masks, with a particularly focus on Vienna in the early 20th century. We chat about the artistic meaning of the masks and how they affected people’s understanding of death. We also talk about the material culture nature of the masks and how she deals with what would generally be considered a dark topic.

If you’re in England, be sure to check out her contribution to the Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 exhibit, which will be at the National Gallery in London between October 9 and January 12.

Sean Graham is a doctoral candidate at the University of Ottawa where he is currently working on a project that examines the early years of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He has previously studied at Nipissing University, the University of the West Indies, and the University of Regina and like any red-blooded Canadian his ultimate dream is to be a curling champion while living on a diet of beer and poutine.

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