Death is a universal experience. However, it’s the rare type of universal experience that most people don’t wish to discuss.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Where Are the Museums of Death?
- Interesting Things You’ll Find at the Museums of Death
- Other Facts About the Museums of Death
That said, there are exceptions. For example, many of those who’ve embraced the death positive movement often find that talking and learning about death can help them cope with their own difficult feelings about the subject.
There are many ways to be more death positive. One is to visit the Museums of Death.
As the name implies, these museums feature exhibits that allow visitors to learn more about death in various forms. Because a visit to the Museums of Death can upset some people, you shouldn’t necessarily trust a single blog entry to teach you everything you need to know about them. It’s best to do thorough research before planning a visit.
Regardless, the following overview may still help you better understand what the Museums of Death are, and what you might encounter should you ever choose to visit one.
Important content warning: Some of the exhibits and displays at the Museums of Death can be upsetting. For some, even reading descriptions of these installations may prove challenging. Only read this post if you feel prepared to do so.
Where Are the Museums of Death?
The first Museum of Death opened in San Diego in 1995. Its owners have since moved the museum to Hollywood. They’ve also opened a second location in New Orleans.
As of this writing, the New Orleans location is the only one that is currently open. The owners have stated that they plan on relocating the Hollywood Museum of Death once again, but they haven’t specified precisely where they will relocate to.
The Museums of Death have certain policies of which you should be aware before visiting. They include the following:
- No photography
- No use of phones or mobile devices
- No large bags or backpacks
- No food, beverages, or gum
- No smoking, vaping, or using tobacco products of any sort
- No weapons
The Museums of Death accept visitors of all ages. That said, for obvious reasons, parents should exercise careful judgment when deciding whether a child is mature enough to visit one of the locations. Additionally, the owners only allow children inside if at least one parent accompanies them. They reserve the right to deny entrance to anyone.
Interesting Things You’ll Find at the Museums of Death
As is the case with many museums, to some degree, what you’ll find in the Museums of Death can vary depending on when you visit. Not all of the exhibits are permanent. However, the following are among the more common sights and attractions at either location:
1. Mortician and coroners’ instruments
The Museums of Death cater to those who are comfortable with what many feel to be an uncomfortable topic. Thus, they tend to have exhibits featuring the instruments of morticians and coroners. Often, these are items from the past that provide visitors with a look into the history of a profession that many have little familiarity with.
The museums may also sometimes feature caskets. These displays can be educational in nature, directly showing visitors how caskets work.
2. Serial killer artwork
The curators of the exhibits at the Museums of Death work hard to strike a delicate balance. They can’t shy away from the topic of death, but they don’t wish to glamorize murderers or other malicious figures.
For example, the Museums of Death’s owners claim the museums feature the world’s largest collection of serial killer artwork. These exhibits don’t celebrate serial killers, but they do provide an interesting perspective on their mindsets.
The way in which people approach the topic of death can be somewhat interesting at times. For instance, the average person understandably may not feel comfortable being in the presence of mummified or preserved human remains. However, many people do feel comfortable with taxidermy. As such, the Museums of Death feature pet taxidermy, allowing visitors to engage with death in a way that may not be unreasonably difficult for them.
Taxidermy isn’t the only documentation of pet death that you may find at one of the Museums of Death. Sometimes, exhibits also feature such items as pet headstones. These may remind us that even the death of a companion who wasn’t human has the potential to cause grief.
4. Crime scene photography
Along with serial killer artwork, which often depicts how murderers view their crimes in their own minds and imaginations, the Museums of Death feature photographs of crime scenes that show in very literal ways what murder looks like.
This highlights an important point. As they state on their website, the owners of the Museums of Death serve mature audiences who have prepared themselves emotionally for the experiences they may have at these museums.
Although there are many benefits to embracing a more positive outlook on death, if you believe what you might see at the Museums of Death has the potential to seriously upset you, it may be best to put off visiting either location until you’re more confident in your ability to protect yourself from the emotional or mental difficulties these exhibits may trigger.
5. Manson Family memorabilia
The Manson Family are among the most notorious murderers in recent history in part because they’re quite unique. Typically, a serial killer will work alone or have only a single accomplice. Somehow, Charles Manson was able to convince numerous people to join what amounted to a cult of murder. Thus, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that the Museums of Death have exhibits featuring Manson Family memorabilia.
6. Depictions of torture
Members of the press who’ve visited the Museums of Death and reported on their experiences often mention that although it does seem the museums’ owners plan their exhibits with the intention of shocking some people, they also choose exhibits and displays that give visitors the chance to learn more about the ways humans can be unspeakably cruel to one another.
Just as learning about how other cultures view death can help us learn more about those cultures in general, learning about the way some people have killed others can theoretically help us learn more about what we can do to guard against future atrocities.
For example, after visiting the first Museum of Death shortly after it opened, one journalist reported that a particularly striking display was one that featured depictions and documents of various forms of torturous execution, such as “Death by a Thousand Cuts.”
Once relatively common in some parts of the world, this form of execution involved slowly killing someone by cutting their body in such a way as to prolong their suffering before their eventual death. Often, these executions were public. Sometimes, those who were killed in this manner endured their torture for days before passing.
These displays serve as a reminder that serial killers are by no means the only ones capable of heinous acts of killing. On the contrary, committing such acts may be official policies of armies, governments, and law enforcement agencies at times.
The Museums of Death have also featured other artifacts from forms of execution that, depending on where you’re from in the world, you might have once considered more socially acceptable. For instance, one of the first displays in the original Museum of Death was of the clothes of a prisoner who had been executed via the electric chair.
7. Suicide imagery
These reminders may seem to be excessive at this point, but it’s critical that anyone thinking about visiting the Museums of Death be fully aware of what they might see if they do. According to many reports, these museums often feature images and depictions of suicide. Although they sometimes blend some dark humor into these exhibits, it’s easy to understand why some people may not wish to see these displays without thorough emotional preparation.
8. Pre-burial photography
It may sound very morbid to us today, but in 19th-century America, it was customary (if a family could afford it) to take a picture of a young child who had died before burying them. Usually, a family would dress a child in their finest clothes and open their eyes for the photograph. The Museums of Death have featured such photographs in their exhibits.
9. Light touches
Once more, the Museums of Death’s curators at least attempt to strike a balance when designing exhibits. Their goal is not to sanitize death, nor is it to upset visitors. Because of this, along with the morbid and serious displays, the Museums of Death also feature decorations (such as skeletons) that can make the experience of visiting a Museum of Death feel at least somewhat similar to the experience of visiting a haunted house attraction during the Halloween season.
Other Facts About the Museums of Death
The Museums of Death are undeniably unique when compared to most tourist attractions. Other interesting facts about them include the following:
The original location has a fascinating history
The original San Diego location of the first Museum of Death was also the first mortuary in the city. Journalists visiting the museum upon its opening often pointed out that they could spot trapdoors in the floor that mortuary workers once used to deposit bodies to lower levels. Legendary lawman Wyatt Earp also owned the building once.
Some museum exhibits impress guests so much that they must applaud. The Museums of Death have their own version of this: what the owners refer to as “falling down ovations.”
That’s a clever term, but it once again emphasizes an essential fact: the Museums of Death are not for everyone. According to the owners, it’s not particularly uncommon for guests to faint when seeing certain exhibits and displays.
They’re a labor of love
When they first opened the Museums of Death, the owners were in their mid-thirties and had been married for over a decade. Clearly, they were able to bond over a fascination that many would consider to be remarkably unique.
The Museums of Death: Not for All, But Definitely for Some
Although you may still wish to do more research before deciding whether a trip to one of the Museums of Death is right for you, hopefully, this guide has given you a better understanding of what the experience may consist of. Whether you’re trying to be more death-positive or you’re simply into dark tourism, visiting one of these museums may be an idea to keep in mind the next time you’re planning a trip to California or Louisiana.
- Lux, Thomas. “Oddities and mortality at Gaslamp's Museum of Death.” San Diego Reader, San Diego Reader, 29 January 1998, sandiegoreader.com
- “Museum Info.” Museum of Death, 2021, museumofdeath.net