The Lead Coffin Project

Part of Exhibition: Written in Bone



of an Exhibit

by Emily Lozon

Published on February 16, 2010 , Modified on March 27, 2019

  • Description:

    At the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, the Written in Bone exhibition, “examines history through 17th-century bone biographies, including those of colonists teetering on the edge of survival at Jamestown, Virginia, and those living in the wealthy and well-established settlement of St. Mary’s City, Maryland.” Part of this exhibition is a section entitled, “Mystery Woman Found in Lead Coffin.” This exhibit contains the skeleton of a woman, three lead coffins, several labels, a resin model of what the female may have looked like, a TV screen loping images, and a video kiosk. The video playing, “The Lead Coffin Project” relates the story of the three lead coffins found in St. Mary’s City, Maryland including where they were found, how they were studied, what tests were run, and how scientisits identified the skeletons within. The video runs in five minute loops, with twelve seconds of credits in between each loop. There are captions and a speaker hanging from the ceiling above the kiosk. The TV screen shows images of the skeleton, damage to the bones, and what the female may have looked like before she died. The loop is one minute, thirty-five seconds. There is no sound or captions. The video kiosk is an effective addition to the exhibit. It presents information about the lead coffins, what scientific processes were used to study them, and the life and diet of early Marylanders. The video enhances the exhibit by presenting the scientists who performed the studies on the lead coffins and skeletons, as well as provides images of the research, the location where the coffins were found, and interviews with people such as forensic anthropologists who were involved. Their words cannot be “heard” simply by reading the labels. The video engages visitors by connecting the objects (skeleton and coffins) to the story of their discovery and identification, as well as the larger story of life in early colonial America. In the video, the processes of identifying the skeletons, using the pollen count to determine the time of year the people died, and examining bones and teeth to determine eating habits are all explained. These explanations expand the exhibit by constructing knowledge and answering questions about forensic anthropology. The video is entertaining, in addition to educational, because it is well-done, informative, and offers a unique look at the forensic anthropology behind the exhibit. Many people visit this exhibition, as it is relatively new and covers a popular interest: forensic anthropology. However, as observed, most people who walk through do not stop and watch the entire video. It does not seem to facilitate social interaction or discussion among visitors. Those who watch the video are adults and do so alone, while other members of their group (if any) look at other aspects of the exhibit. There are six other video kiosks and one audio kiosk throughout the exhibition. Watching “The Lead Coffin Project,” at least three other videos can be heard. Each video is loud which can be distracting for visitors. Also, the video is five minutes long, which appeared to be too long to hold the full attention of visitors. However, the video is very interesting, it offers a great explanation of the exhibit, what visitors are looking at, why it is important, and how it was studied. Overall, only slight alterations, shortening the video length and creating better sound containment, would improve this video kiosk and exhibit.

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