Physical/Digital Museum Review: The National Museum of Funeral History

To learn more about how public history sites and their digital presences, I visited the National Museum of Funeral History (NMFH) on February 5, 2023, and its website and VR tour on February 7. I chose NMFH because it was new to me, and I had heard positive reviews from friends. It also had more of an online presence than other Houston area history museums. The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum and Holocaust Museum Houston, for instance, have websites that include descriptions of exhibits but very little content from them. (You can arrange live virtual tours with both museums, however.) By comparison, NMFH had a permanent virtual reality (VR) tour hosted on their website in addition to textual and photographic descriptions of its exhibits.

NMFH was founded by R. L. Waltrip, who also founded Service Corporation International, the second largest funeral company in the United States (after Walmart which sells caskets, surprisingly). The museum presents the history of funerals largely in terms of the professionalization and commercialization of funerary services, likely the main interest of its founder and board. It also presents its materials from a white, US, Christian perspective, assuming a knowledge of that culture’s burial and funerary practices, while explaining others.

Most of the NMFH physical space is dominated by displays of unique and historical caskets and hearses, with smaller exhibits related to presidential funerals, postmortem photography, memorabilia of famous deceased celebrities, and other topics tucked between them. The center of the museum is relatively open, allowing visitors to explore its core materials and smaller exhibits in whatever order they choose. There are also a few larger exhibits that visitors traverse linearly, giving them a more directed experience. Among these larger exhibits are a major one focused on papal funerals and two more medium-sized exhibits on the history of embalming and cremation.

The importance of these three larger exhibits to NMFH’s vision of itself are apparent in the space they take in the museum as well as the care taken in their presentation. Both the exhibits on embalming and cremation present progressive histories of the practices that acknowledge the long history of these practices but focus on their development in US history from roughly the 1860s and 1970s respectively. Because these exhibits focus predominantly on technical, rather than cultural, aspects of these practices, they are also very tied to the business of funerals and internment. The cremation exhibit, for example, starts with an explanation that “The funeral industry has a challenge on its hands: consumers are choosing cremation, but they know little about it.” Simply put, these funeral practices are presented as business practices.

The “Celebrating the Lives and Deaths of the Popes” exhibit reveals that NMFH’s perspective is not entirely an industry one. The exhibit includes articles related to the papal office in life before turning to the rituals performed upon the death of a pope and the selection of a successor. This perspective of this exhibit is a more religious one than the museum’s often materialist presentation of death and burial. However, even in this exhibit on popes, the funeral section focuses heavily on the material aspects of the papal burial, such as the three nested coffins, and their shape and construction, as well as the physical burial space. Furthermore, NMFH’s assumptions of Christian, particularly white Roman Catholic, perspective on death are reflected in the size of the papal exhibit, especially in comparison to the much smaller presentations on New Orleans “Jazz” funerals, Dìa de los Meurtos, Japanese funerals, and Ghanese coffins. Additionally, the explanations of these latter practices assume much less knowledge of them than the papal exhibit does about Roman Catholic (and European Christian) practices.

The NMFH website serves predominantly as a way to drive visitors to the physical museum. It includes brief overviews of its exhibits, including a number of photographs of each. Some exhibits, such as “Presidential Passings,” also include PDFs of magazine articles written by museum staff in conjunction with organizing the exhibit. Exhibit descriptions and supporting materials are on separate webpages linked from the NMFH website’s Exhibits page and can be viewed in any order. They are targeted at possible museum visitors and provide basic introductory information intended to encourage visits.

NMFH also offers a VR tour. Fundamentally, the VR tour seeks to reproduce the experience of visiting the physical museum. Visitors can navigate the physical space of the museum virtually by clicking on where they’d like to move and then by panning around by clicking and dragging. They can also click on specific items for enlarged images and descriptions of them. Not all of the museum’s materials have this extra detail, but the VR tour also includes audio descriptions of some of the exhibits and displayed items. On balance, the VR tour is not a replacement for visiting the physical site. The audio it includes is effectively just each exhibit’s introductory signage, and because not every item has been individually photographed, the virtual presentation is less than complete.

The VR tour is also buggy and can be frustrating especially for less technology inclined people. The popups that display additional information about the exhibit items often stick open and can’t be closed with the ‘X’s that appear. Similarly, it appears that the designers intended for the exhibit items to be able to be viewed as a sequential slideshow, but the arrows that appear to be for navigation do not work. While navigating the virtual museum, I have also occasionally flown through walls.

Ultimately, NMFH is an interesting museum, but it leaves visitors wanting more interpretation, especially about the cultural meanings of the various funerary practices it describes. The VR tour only adds to this feeling. It is a less complete version of the physical experience. Better inclusion of all the museum’s materials would help, but the VR experience is also a missed opportunity to connect virtual museum goers with more information, either via outside hyperlinks or by showcasing museum materials that the physical museum might not have space for.