Museum of Death

Greetings from the hot and sunny Los Angeles! Last time I visited this city I was 6 years old and only cared about one thing – Disneyland. Since then, my list of things to see and do in Los Angeles has grown longer and longer. Finally, I now have the opportunity to visit some incredible museums and see the sites. Today was our first day so we decided to take things easy and stay around our hotel. The Museum of Death was only a short walk away. I had heard about this museum from one of my true crime podcasts so I knew it was going to be intense. But, I was genuinely interested in seeing how such a sensitive issue can be displayed. Also, I think there is this human need to try and make sense of the unthinkable and macabre.

In short, it could have been handled a lot better due to the fact that they had some incredible objects, but, these weren’t curated as thoughtfully as possible. I should also note that I am fully aware this museum is a bit of a money-maker endeavour. Still, I think it’s important to review anything that has the word ‘museum’ in its name. So here we go.

There will be some structure to this post, but, I firstly want to say that it is quite amazing there is no age limit. The website does warn against extremely graphic imagery. If anyone under the age of 16 or even 18 stepped foot into this museum I would strongly recommend it is followed by an appointment with a mental health professional.

No photographs were allowed in the museum, for obvious reasons. This was actually what I appreciated the most considering the contents inside were so graphic. The rest of the post will focus on the objects, layout, labels and film.

Objects

The objects inside were taken straight from your nightmares. The very first room had some paintings by John Wayne Gacy and letters from serial killers such as Richard Ramirez. These objects were, as you would expect, extremely uncomfortable to view. Especially considering they were sort of crammed into one room with long labels explaining who the serial killers were and what they had done.

Other graphic objects included crime scene photographs which I thought could have been more respectfully displayed. They were just hanging on the wall with almost no context. Maybe if they had have been displayed in folders that people could look through it might not have seemed so intentionally shocking.

Some of the most interesting objects, for me, were the Victorian mourning jewellery and autopsy instruments from the past. This was probably because they had more imbedded history and weren’t as horrifying to see. There were full autopsy kits from the early 1800s and a make-up kit used to prepare a corpse for burial from the 1980s.

Victorian mourning jewellery courtesy of Wellcome Collection
Examples of some of the instruments on display

Another set of objects I found insightful were the funerary objects for Jewish burial and the Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) display. I had thought that the entire museum might be more like this – representations of how different religions and cultures view and deal with death.

There were other random objects I want to mention including skulls from various animals and a whole room dedicated to the Heaven’s Gate cult. In other words, the objects were all, to varying extents, confrontational and some were problematic.

Layout

The layout of the museum was so that visitors could explore at their own pace. There was a pretty clear path from start to exit, but, there were rooms that branched off throughout. At times, it also allowed those who didn’t want to see particular images or objects to continue on a different route.

Each room had a different theme so you (sort of) knew what to expect. For example, there was a room called the Manson Family filled with objects that belonged to the members. Other themes included execution and taxidermy (of animals).

As each room was filled with objects and furniture, it was difficult to make your way around with others in the space. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to move around when the museum is at capacity.

Labels

There were labels around the museum that offered some information about the objects on display. They were mostly very basic and left me thinking surely there is something more that could be written.

There could have been more research into some of the objects on display stopping them from being merely shock value. This also could have helped with addressing the ethical issues surrounding the objects.

Film

We spent the most time watching documentary footage of early Hollywood murders. This was shown in the very last room of the museum. This footage explored cases such as ‘The Black Dahlia’.

I think we spent about half an hour just sitting in this room learning about the dark side of early Hollywood.

Final Thoughts

This museum could have been a really interesting display on death. There were elements such as the film footage etc that showed great potential, but, the rest of the museum required more careful curating.

If you are going to deal with death, I think it’s important to leave people feeling informed and not mentally scarred.

Author: Rebecca Lush

Curator at the Integrated Pathology Learning Centre.

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