‘…what drives me as an artist is that I think everyone is unique, yet everyone disappears so quickly… (in The Reserve of Dead Swiss everyone is dead)… we hate to see the dead, yet we love them, we appreciate them.’  - Christian Boltanski

Objects and picture handling activity

Practical tips

Gallery: Tate Modern
Materials: Contact Gillian Wilson to pick up a free handling objects box from Tate Modern. Email gillian.wilson@tate.org.uk  
Preparation: Please contact us to check if the artworks will be on display when you plan to visit. Email visiting.modern@tate.org.uk

Introduction to the artist and artwork

Christian Boltanski’s The Reserve of Dead Swiss 1990 is concerned with ideas of memorial, loss and mourning. As looking at the work will trigger discussion of death and bereavement, you as the group leader will need to be prepared for how particular group members may feel. Please take time to familiarise yourself with the artwork and our suggested activities before your visit with the group.


  • Ask the group to work in pairs with the objects – one object per pair – looking at the artwork (but request that they do not read the wall label or text panel).
  • Ask each pair to spend five minutes discussing their ideas about their object and their responses to it. Extend this by asking them to think about any associations their object may have with the artwork.
  • Ask the group to share ideas in turn with the whole group.

The aim of this activity is to help the group explore the themes of the artwork in ways that are relevant to the them, so personal responses are, as always, very relevant.

  • Finish the discussion by discussing why people think this artwork is on display in the History part of the gallery

Handling objects

  • A postcard of an Egyptian mummy case
  • An item of clothing
  • A small candle stub
  • Fabric used for wrapping a body – gabi in Ethiopia and Eritrea
  • A postcard of a Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ artwork
  • Two photographs documenting recent historical events involving genocide, and memorials to those events

We have used the objects listed above because they have powerful associations, across different cultures and religions, with rituals associated with death and remembering those we love and have lost. It is natural and important that some members of the group will be personally affected by some of these during this activity. You may wish to include discussion as to why the artist should wish to make work on a subject that can be difficult and painful. 

Follow-up activities: other artists

You can further discuss the ideas of memorial, loss and mourning in relation to these other artworks:

Andy Warhol

Marilyn Diptych 1962

Warhol produced many screen-prints of Marilyn Monroe in the year of her death. Notice how one half uses colour and the other black and white. Find out if your group recognises who Marilyn is and if necessary contextualise her role as movie icon and celebrity of the 1950s.

Ask the group to divide into two groups to discuss what happens to the inks in the prints, (for example some are very blurred and indistinct; some so faint the image almost disappears), also why they think Warhol chose to leave the drips, pencil marks and other signs of the processes involved in making this. Some people feel there is a parallel between how Marilyn Monroe was treated by the media before and after her death with their treatment of another celebrity: Princess Diana.

You may wish to discuss the difference between Warhol’s exploration of celebrity in this room (he also painted people such as Elvis Presley and Jackie Kennedy) and Boltanski’s concentration on ordinary people and their deaths in The Reserve of Dead Swiss.

Doris Salcedo

Unland: Audible in the Mouth 1998

Salcedo makes poetical and political allusions to loss in Latin America using ordinary everyday materials including furniture, hair and fabrics. While not showing anyone’s face or body she suggests human presence in her sensitive use of materials. As a contrast to the other materials discussed so far in Boltanski’s use of newspaper photographs, lights and fabrics, you might wish to discuss what connotations your group uses to the idea of artists using human hair and furniture in suggesting loss.

Follow-up activities: linking Boltanski’s work to your own projects

It may be useful here to think about the role that the arts and culture generally has in helping us explore difficult aspects of life.

In this work, Christian Boltanski has used photographs from obituaries in Swiss newspapers. Boltanski’s father was a German Jewish doctor, forced to hide in a cellar during the Second World War, and his mother was Catholic, so you may wish to have a discussion about the varying cultural approaches to marking death.

It may be that group members have their own personal photos of family members or friends who have died and you might find it helpful to look at these on return to your centre, discussing the person together rather than this being a private matter.

Again, your discretion as to what is appropriate here is crucial. It can be very disturbing for some people to see explicit violence on television without the opportunity to discuss these events, so again the relation of everyday life to artworks can be useful here.

At the time of writing (January 2005) the Asian Tsunami had been extensively featured on television and some people may find links between Boltanski’s work, made fifteen years ago, and some of the reports on families’ efforts to trace missing loved ones, often through using photographs. 

It is important that time is taken to discuss this work, perhaps before moving to a break or another work in the gallery which is less intense. 

Follow-up activities: methods of display

Be aware of how Boltanski displays this artwork: the use of the lights and fabric and the blurry photos make the work very evocative. You may wish to look at other works he has made where he celebrates the passing of time and history and where he uses these media repeatedly. We have included two very different types of fabrics in our handling resources: a dress handmade for a child in England and a handwoven, hand spun piece of cloth from Ethiopia called a gabi, used to wrap a body. Both have very powerful associations of memory, history, culture and loss.

You may want to look at family possessions from the point of view of sharing different cultural approaches to family life, history or approaches to loss. You might want to organise a temporary display shelf or table using these personal possessions to mark a particular event or time of the year (Holocaust Memorial Day, Easter, Black History Month) that compares and contrasts cultural approaches to marking complex historical, religious or personal events.

Again, your own knowledge of your particular workplace will guide you as to what is meaningful in your specific setting. Decide if you need to write a text panel to communicate the possessions to visitors or those unfamiliar with some of the cultural meanings. This can be a wonderful opportunity to explore difference in a reflective way.