Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Dark Museum Off

When I started travelling, I considered museums essential destinations. I'd always had a passing interest in ancient history, so the art museums of Florence, the National Archaeological Museum of Athens and the charmingly run-down Egyptian Museum in Cairo took me on a fascinating journey backwards through time.

I didn't visit many museums after that, at least not many mainstream ones, as curiosity led me to develop a taste for something more niche. Over the past 18 months, I've made a hobby of tracking down museums that are sometimes sinister, mostly morbid and definitely dark.

Siriraj Medical Museum,
Bangkok, Thailand

My most popular blog post, searchers can't get enough of dead babies boasting an array of deformities. Beyond these questionable displays, the four-in-one museum branches out into further unpleasant medical areas like parasites and car accident fatalities, and then there's a room at the back featuring all the skulls and limbs they couldn't think of ways to display more ceremoniously.

Meguro Parasitological Museum,
Tokyo, Japan

This lovingly maintained collection (perhaps a little too lovingly) would have made more of an impact if I hadn't already seen parasites at Siriraj, but what it lacks in unfeasibly large testicles it makes up for with preserved animal specimens. I literally bought the T-shirt.

Corrections Museum,
Bangkok, Thailand

This former prison just over the river from the Grand Palace and temples was like a childhood fantasy come true: a wax museum that dispenses with the boring celebrities and monarchs to focus exclusively on the Chamber of Horrors section. These exhibits spread across two buildings strive to give visitors an accurate idea of what popular forms of torture and execution throughout the ages looked like, from global favourites like beheading and fingernail torture to the uniquely Thai speciality of putting someone inside a large-scale football and letting elephants have a kickabout.

Seodaemun Prison,
Seoul, South Korea

A slight disappointment after the Bangkok one, just for featuring fewer dummies, torture fans still shouldn't miss the opportunity to see a smorgasbord of vicious torture instruments from the Japanese occupation, including spiked coffins and water torture.

Toy Museum,
Malacca, Malaysia

So it's not a converted prison or shrine to gruesome biology, but this collection of tacky toys from across the ages, gathered by one adult Malaysian man, is still pretty disturbing.

Nimbin Museum,
Nimbin, Australia

Despite the borderline gruesome dioramas, it would take the world's least astute, most out-of-touch grandmother to pass through these claustrophobic corridors of mutilated dolls and scribble and not realise the 'museum' was a barely veiled political art statement for the legalising of marijuana. Not that legality matters much to the people of Nimbin.

Hoa Lo Prison ('Hanoi Hilton'),
Hanoi, Vietnam

Another former prison turned memorial museum, this time from the perspective of the torturers. This makes reading the plaques and information boards more darkly amusing, not just because of the imperfect English but for the frequent whitewashing and deliberate historical oversights. Americans should enjoy it particularly.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison),
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The most spartan museum yet, this converted internment centre forfeits dummies and horror movie sound effects in favour of presenting the cold, hard truth about the thousands of men, women and children detained here in horrendous conditions, only a handful of whom would ever leave. Where's the fun in that?

So which one is the best?

I guess Thailand's in the lead for now - undeterred by a lack of colonial atrocities compared to their Asian neighbours, the Thais came up with some ingeniously wicked methods of punishing their own and their doctors might be the least squeamish in the world.

When I head back to Europe, I've got a feeling there'll be plenty more of these to keep me busy, if I can just find them. We were right bastards and it deserves to be remembered, preferably with the help of mannequins and over-enthusiastically brutal illustrations.

The tear is the icing on the cake

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