By Lauren Valone
As a recent transplant to the greater Los Angeles (LA), California area, I am surrounded by some of the most well respected institutions in the world. At the same time, I’m also surrounded by Hollywood and tourism. I find myself at an intersection of the high- and low-brow, kitsch and sophistication, recognized ivory towers and uncompromising realities. A perfect example: I live directly between the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Wax Museum.
The International Council on Museums (ICOM) defines our organizations as, “… a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.” According to the Institute of Museum and Library Services there are 17,500 museums in the United States. We take our profession seriously and strive for the highest of standards possible for our respective institutions. However, museum professionals and the public alike often have a preconceived notion of what a museum should be, items that it should collect, who should manage or ‘own’ it, and the people that it should serve.
Being at the geographical and intellectual crossroads that I am, I often wonder why do we celebrate conventional museums and their topics and discredit those that feature oddities? Who decides what is legitimate and what isn’t? Where does this notion of legitimacy come from? More than being a for-profit organization, why are some museums even considered more legitimate than others?
All across the United States there are examples of these ‘oddity’ museums, many of which I had the pleasure of visiting on my travels from the East Coast to LA – the Pizza Museum in Philadelphia, American Celebration on Parade in Virginia, Graceland, the National Knife Museum in Tennessee, the museums within Dollywood, and the International UFO Museum in New Mexico, just to name a few. I recently had the pleasure of visiting a true cabinet of curiosity in my own backyard, the Museum of Death in Hollywood, California. While the Museum may seem to just be a tourist-only destination, I found my experience unique, interesting, and informative.
Visitors start their self-guided tour in the captivating Serial Killer Room. One would expect there to be books, movies, and other pop-culture depictions of these criminals – and those items were definitely there. As I read through the various plaques describing these killers and their crimes, I began to realize that I was in store for much more. What made me realize the depth of information included in the Museum were actual artworks by and correspondences with these killers. Seeing these took me by surprise, as they were something that I would never imagine to be available to a collector or museum.
Onward from the Serial Killer Room, the Museum brings its visitors through a comprehensive look at death as we know it. I went to the Execution Room, Funeral Room, Mortician Room, Carnage Corner, hallways full of crime scene evidence and photographs, images of car crashes, a California room dedicated to famous crimes like Charles Manson and Black Dahlia murders, the Suicide Room, Genocide Room, multiple Specimen Rooms full of human and animal skeleton parts and taxidermy, and last but not least, the Theater of Death. It was very clear that Museum collectors/personnel truly thought about the flow and experience of visitors, as well as how people would consume the presented information. Just as non-profit, “legitimate” museums alike, exhibits were well defined, explanatory, and covered a wide-range of sub-topics. My fellow visitors and I were all deeply engaged with each of the exhibits, reading through all of the dense panels and discussing objects of interest. When one compares my interpretive experiences at the Museum of Death to ICOM’s definition and general standards, the educational and enjoyment goals are assuredly being met.
The Museum of Death treats its core subject just as any history, art or science museum would – the subject matter just happens to be death. It is comprised of true artifacts that shed light on the technical, social, and cultural aspects of death. Exhibits are chockfull of items like the clothing worn by Wayne Robert Felde during his electric chair execution, a quilt of the Manson family, a recreation of the Heaven’s Gate suicide complete with the actual outfits worn by members, a funeral home matchbook collection, mortician tools, and caskets from around the world and from various religions. The Museum was teeming with every type of object related to death that any visitor could imagine. What I really found interesting was the juxtaposition of the more pop-culture items versus factual artifacts. For instance, a section on Jeffrey Dahmer included actual transcripts from his police interview leading to his confession, which was juxtaposed next to a Jeffrey Dahmer mistletoe “toy.” Like any other museum, I was later told that while some items were bought, most objects were donated by “death enthusiasts.” Again, the Museum of Death’s collection practices are in line with IMLS definition of a museum.
Overall, I had a great experience at the Museum of Death. I only wish that I had had more time to browse the dense galleries, as I am sure there was something I missed. The Museum is really not a novelty at all, and rather it is a complete exploration of all aspects of death.
It takes time to collect, reevaluate educational messaging, and define purpose. Could it be that when we judge a museum as an oddity or “illegitimate” that it’s really just an institution in its infancy? Could the great natural history museums of the world once been considered oddities themselves as they started out collecting human remains and funerary objects? Likewise, it can be difficult and time consuming to obtain a non-profit status. The Museum of Death started as a one-room exhibit and has grown since 1995 to a hangar full of deathly wonders. Who knows where it’s future will be?
Lauren Valone is the Program Coordinator for the Western Museums Association. She has served on the Marketing Committee of the Waterworks Museum, and as Web Content Manager and Production Manager of Publishing and Social Media for an independent publisher. She holds an MA in Museum Education from Tufts University, a BA in Studio Art, Photography from Lewis & Clark College, and has been published in and copy-edited for the Journal of Museum Education.