THE MUSEUM OF DEATH, L.A.
The Museum of Death in Hollywood is home to the world's largest collection of death artifacts. Founded in June 1995, The museum evolved from the Rita Dean art gallery which was located in a San Diego ex-mortuary building once owned by Wyatt Earp. After relocating to Los Angeles, owners JD Healy and Cathee Shultz decided they wanted to fill a void in death education and insist that they didn't open the museum purely for the shock factor but to make our death-phobic society more aware that confronting death allows you to 'live your best life'.
Within the museum you can find unique items relating to death in all its forms including; serial killer artwork, antique funeral items, mortician and coroners instruments, Manson family memorabilia, taxidermy, crime scene photographs, collections of body bags and coffins, photo binders from funeral homes and mortuaries, replicas of execution devices, and displays on headhunters and cannibalism. The artifacts are acquired from a number of sources including auction houses, estate sales, private collectors, retired police/prison workers, funeral homes or mortuaries, and families who may have been involved in the death industry.
The museum is upfront about the graphic content contained within and encourages visitors to prepare themselves before arriving, stating that there have been a number of "falling down ovations" (people fainting) over the years. Having studied death and dying for a while and spent some time in a cadaver lab, I thought I was pretty much prepared for whatever the museum could throw at me so set off down to Hollywood Boulevard to check it out. Disguising the grim contents of the building is a wall covered in pretty pink flowers that grow strategically around the painting of a skull. Walking past a sign that proclaims 'Death is Everywhere', I pushed the outer gate and entered the building.
There is no photography of any kind allowed and mobile phone use is prohibited so I turned my phone off, paid my money and entered the first room which displayed antiques and artifacts relating to the funeral and mortuary trades. One of the first things on display is a wicker casket lined with tin from the Civil War era. Wondering about the need for the tin, I read that bodies were often shipped home by train and if it was going to be a long journey, the coffin could be packed with ice at stations when the train stopped. I then moved on to the 'Theater of Death' where a screen shows Thomas Noguchi, retired Chief Medical Examiner for the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office, performing a real autopsy. There is also a looped video that shows a body being embalmed.
As I moved through the museum, the content started to become more focussed on murderers, suicides and gruesome deaths. There are morgue photos of Elizabeth Short, known posthumously as 'the Black Dahlia', who was found murdered and cut in half. Also on display are a pair of clown shoes belonging to John Wayne Gacy, an American serial killer and sex offender known as the 'Killer Clown' who assaulted and murdered at least 33 young men and boys. Another exhibit is dedicated to The Heaven's Gate cult suicides- the largest mass suicide ever committed on American soil. Founded by Texas music teacher Marshall Applewhite and nurse Bonnie Nettles, the cult believed they were living in the end times and would be taken to new planets by a spacecraft. In March '97, thirty nine cult members committed suicide by ingesting barbiturate-laced applesauce, washed down with vodka. As well as a set of bunk beds from the site of the suicides, there is the only known suicide outfit to remain in existence, complete with purple shroud and a pair of the distinctive Nike shoes worn by all the cult members (these were taken off the market by Nike after the incident). A further exhibit was dedicated to GG Allin, frontman of the Murder Junkies and known as the most offensive man in punk due to his habits of deficating on stage and throwing it at the audience (or eating it himself!!). Items included his stage-worn clothes and pictures of his open casket funeral. There are plans to display the old headstone from his burial site, and apparently his actual remains will be on show at the museum one day.
The golden boy of the museum appeared to be Charles Manson who has a large section dedicated to him and his 'family'. There's a baseball signed by Manson, a Charles Manson ventriloquist dummy, and two little figures - a scorpion and a spider - that he made from thread and elastic pulled from his prison-issued underwear. On the wall is a well-worn quilt that was painstakingly sewn by girls from the Manson clan while they resided at Spahn Ranch. It initially looks like patterns of flowers and butterflies, however a closer inspection shows that they're shaped into swastikas. Even more unsettling are the uncensored crime-scene photos of murders committed by members of the Manson clan in 1969 which show sprawling corpses covered in knife wounds, with blood everywhere.
The museum straddles the line between education and morbid fascination. Some people will visit purely for the shock factor, but there is an educational element too. It definitely helped increase my knowledge and I found some of the exhibitions and artifacts (such as the postmortem videos) interesting as people rarely get to see or know the details that go into an embalming or autopsy process. On the other hand, some items were just downright disturbing. I think the most disturbing thing is that every item in the museum is genuine. It's easy to say that the photos are horrible or meant to shock, but these events actually happened in real life and illustrate some of the worst examples of human depravity.
Of course, there's also the question of respect and whether it's ethical to make a profit from these crimes and suicides, but while people are still interested in visiting, the museum will continue to trade. In fact, the interest appears to be growing - as well as this location in L.A., there is now also a Museum of Death in New Orleans and the owners have plans to expand with a further museum in Seattle.
The experience is a self guided tour with a suggested time of around an hour, although visitors can stay as long as they like. The museum doesn't set an age limit but they do warn that some exhibits may be too graphic or explicit for children. There is also a gift shop that sells various macabre items.
More info on the Museum here.