Museum of Death, L.A.
A small but crammed museum in Los Angeles
full of artefacts related to death, including cannibalism, taxidermy, serial killer artwork and stomach-churning photos/videos of crime scenes, autopsies and the like.
Q: can you overdo playing with the morbid? A: Yes, of course you can. And for many the Museum of Death may be a case in point. Not only does it have some extremely gruesome images on display, their coverage of serial killers like Charles Manson is bordering on the celebratory.
Yet, provided you can stomach it, this is probably a must-see speciality museum for most dark tourists when in L.A.
Originally based in San Diego, the gallery was rebranded as a museum (for legal reasons – apparently you can get away with more in a museum than in an art gallery) and moved to Los Angeles
The collection grew and grew and all the while the couple who own the museum corresponded with murderers, most of them on death row, thus acquiring many a unique artefact or work of art. (Apparently it is quite common for death-row prisoners to try their hand at painting … presumably as it helps pass the time ...)
This includes, in particular, Charles Manson – the sect leader responsible for the gruesome murder of Sharon Tate and a group of friends and associates at her Beverly Hills home in August 1969. Manson wasn't there himself but had his “Family” (i.e. brainwashed sect followers) commit the murder on his orders. It was one of the most high-profile murder cases ever, partly because Sharon Tate was a film star, and married to director Roman Polanski, and partly because she was eight months pregnant when she was brutally butchered.
The owners admit to stopping at virtually nothing when it comes to their collection of anything and everything related to death. But they see their museum as ultimately life-affirming. (Hence the standard farewell that staff give visitors as they leave the museum is “have a good life!”)
They also claim they want to fill a “void in death education” in America. It is true, we all die eventually, yet except in the media or fictional contexts, real death is largely kept out of view – and out of mind – in modern society. In academic
research on dark tourism this observation, labelled “sequestered death”, has become a very common trope – and dark tourism is characterized as a sort of reaction to sequestered death. A way of confronting this taboo subject.
In that vein, the Museum of Death may well be the ultimate in dark tourism as far as full-on graphic display of death is concerned. But whether it can really be seen as primarily “educational” is rather questionable in my view (see the description of the exhibition's contents below!).
Not surprisingly, in turn, it is also extremely controversial. Surprisingly, though, it is generally very well received, even in the press, but especially by visitors, going by online reviews. I suppose many visitors will come prepared – and already have the prerequisite “morbid curiosity” without which you really shouldn't visit this unusual place ...
The clientele I was able to witness when I visited the museum confirms this (people-watching is part of the experience). It was mostly younger people, the majority presumably in their 20s, plenty of Goths, some with extreme piercings and tattoos, at least as many women as men, but thankfully nobody who struck me as a weirdo serial-killer worshipper. Several came as couples, quietly sharing the experience. Nobody fainted. It was quite crowded but calm and peaceful. Compared to many other museums I've been to in the US
, the visitors were unusually silent most of the time (whether out of respect, shock or awe, I cannot say ...).
What there is to see: The museum is housed in a low single-storey building that would be rather unremarkable if it weren't for the huge image of a skull peeking out from a wall largely covered in ivy. Above it says clearly enough “Museum of Death” – and underneath is a small neon sign saying “museum” again, as if to make absolutely sure.
The outer door is a barred gate and it looks locked, but three (!!) signs saying “open” made me try the door anyway, and indeed I was let in. In between the outer gate and the actual door there are a few open-air exhibits to greet you: a guillotine to the right, a gallows to the left, plus a few smaller bits and bobs like skulls and scythes.
Once inside you are vocally greeted by a usually quite chirpy museum attendant. When I was there, this was a young chap in suitable dark attire and with plenty of tattoos. But neither of the owners were there – although, going by reviews, they are, or used be, on hand in person a lot.
Before collecting the admission fee it was pointed out a) that the graphic nature of many items in the exhibition isn't for the faint-hearted, and b) that photography was not allowed anywhere inside, except in the anteroom and gift shop.
We were, however, invited to take pictures of their resident pet Siamese twin terrapin (though they call it a turtle). It is indeed a two-headed amphibian with six legs, since the bodies are conjoined in the middle to lower abdomen to form a triangle or Y-shape. The two heads, I guess, could never look at each other, and it looks like the two “halves” are constantly trying (in vain) to swim away from each other. Their tank looked rather small and I must say I felt a bit sorry for this sad little live exhibit …
The gift shop also includes plenty of gruesome stuff, as you would imagine. Beyond the usual T-shirts and Goth-compatible jewellery they also had specimens of malformed creatures in formaldehyde jars and – believe it or not: vinyl records of music by Charles Manson. Yes. THAT Charles Manson. The Tate murder “Family” Manson.
At first I couldn't believe my eyes. But it is indeed genuine. You know, in addition to his career as a psychopath guru of a murderous sect he also had ambitions to be a pop music star (as you would if you're a megalomaniacal nutcase). He even carried on with this in prison. Back home I did some research, found reviews, and it more or less confirmed my suspicions that this is at best a morbid collector's item for people obsessed with serial killers, but musically it's said to be rather weak (predictably).
But now for the exhibition: once you're through the curtain by the no-photography sign you get straight into the “serial killer archives” section. Normally I am quite miffed when faced with a strictly enforced no-photography policy, but here it became clear pretty quick why such a policy is rightly in place here .. and I felt little urge to break the rules.
Apart from the fact that many of the images are so gruesome, there are also bound to be copyright issues involved. They even have a photo they claim “doesn't officially exist”, namely of JFK
's autopsy (so how did they get hold of it, you have to wonder). In addition they have a JFK
bust with the relevant bits of the back and side of his skull blasted away. That's pretty graphic too.
Amongst the most horrible photos are those from a series taken by a couple who murdered the girl's ex boyfriend – and proceeded to saw the body into pieces. Then they posed for their camera with the bits, smiling and naked as if it was just part of a jolly threesome. But apparently they then stupidly had the film developed at a local chemist – and hence were found out.
There are plenty more images, newspaper clippings and so on and so forth on various other murderers and serial killers (John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Peter Sutcliffe, etc.), as well as the terrorist held responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing
, Timothy McVeigh.
But pride of place is reserved for Charles Manson. Yes. THAT Charles Manson again. The separate Manson room of glory (suitably entitled “Helter Skelter”) contains plenty of portraits of the man at different ages – including a recent one from prison in which he looks even scarier than in the old pics, what with the swastika tattooed onto the middle of his ageing forehead and his death-metal-rocker-like beard. Also on display are letters penned by Manson, artwork doodled by him as well as one of his guitars (enter, again, his failed singer-songwriter career – see above).
But what I found the most shocking was a series of photos of the crime scene of the Tate et al murders of 1969. This even included an image of the dead Sharon Tate, her naked and visibly pregnant body covered all over in blood and with a rope round her neck. Is this not going too far? Is this perhaps a tad exploitative and ethically dubious to show such images so openly. Well, I'm almost tempted to say yes in this case – but then again, you can find the very same images on the Internet as well, so I don't know… After all you always have the option as a visitor of just moving on without dwelling on these photos. And that's what I did. Also because I can't quite get this fascination many people have with psycho serial killers.
But despite the initial heavy emphasis on that topic, the museum also has far more to offer. Taxidermy, for instance, including one of Jayne Mansfield's chihuahuas (killed in the same car accident as their busty owner), and Liberace's cat!
Supposedly they also have a genuine shrunken head on display, but somehow I seem to have missed that one ...
Furthermore there are some coffins and undertaker's tools and brochures, as well as some body bags. In one room a video is showing the embalming process of a dead body. But most shocking were those extensive and graphic autopsy images. Thankfully we don't yet have “sensual” TV with smell ...
There's a section on suicide too, which in particular highlights mass suicides
such as Jonestown
or the Heaven's Gate cult mass suicide of 1997, when their whack-head cult leader convinced his disciples that the approaching Hale-Bopp comet was in fact a spaceship coming to take them away to some promised land (he believed he was an alien himself). So what do you do when you think you are about to board a spacecraft that is to take you on the ride of your life? Well, obviously you collectively top yourselves prior to boarding. Well, it seems that they were actually led to believe that topping oneself was indeed part of the boarding process. The museum has an original bunk bed from the scene with a dummy Heaven Gater lying on it covered in an original purple shroud of the sort that the dead cult was found with later.
And if that wasn't mad enough, wait for the extreme punk rocker in the final room – or rather his images and videos, which routinely feature self-harm, lots of blood, excrement and some rumbling kind of vaguely rocky soundtrack accompanying the “show” (though the music didn't exactly sound like punk, as it was mostly far too slow for that – it's probably rather “gore metal” of its own sort.)
All in all the museum has the character of a bit of a jumble room, crammed, haphazard, and lacking a proper common thread or some form of overarching commodification
. All the exhibits are left to speak largely for themselves. The texts on display are almost exclusively newspaper cuttings or copies of documents. But there is very little, if any, interpretation or analysis.
And while there is a certain over-emphasis and information overload on topics like serial killers, the museum is strangely lacking on other fronts.
What is clearly missing, I thought, was something more on the scientific side of death; for instance: at what point can a body be declared dead – it's a complicated and controversial issue, after all. There could also have been more on the differences in cultures in dealing with death and varying funeral traditions (see e.g. the Sepulchral Museum in Kassel
). A bit more on sober aspects such as these could have made for a good counterbalance to all the gory and grotty curiosity-cabinet characteristics that dominate in this museum.
It can get a bit claustrophobic and stuffy in there too, especially when it gets really busy so that it is not easy to move about. There simply is too little space for visitors in between all the filled-to-the-brim little rooms and narrow corridors.
Overall, however, it is certainly worth a visit – provided you can stomach the extreme gore represented here. I occasionally found I was reaching my limits and turned away from some displays quicker than I would have thought I'd have to. So be warned. The phrase “not for the faint-hearted” gets overused quite a bit these days. But here it really, truly applies to the fullest extent.
right in the heart of L.A.
's most famous suburb, near the eastern end of Hollywood Boulevard at No. 6031, CA 90028.
Access and costs: quite easy to get there; not exactly cheap.
Details: Unless you are staying on or near the eastern end of Hollywood Boulevard and can walk it (as I did), getting there is probably easiest by car (as usual in L.A.). The museum offers free parking (very unusual for L.A.).
But you can also get here on public transport: The nearest subway station (Metro Red Line) is Hollywood/Vine Street just a block and a half to the east. There are also a couple of bus lines running on Hollywood Blvd (180/181, 217).
Admission: 15 USD (no concessions), which may seem a bit steep for such a small museum, but then again it is a private undertaking (can that word be used in this context?) with no public funding, so I guess it's not inadequate.
Opening times: daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., on Fridays to 9 p.m. and even as late as 10 p.m. on Saturdays.
No photography inside the main exhibition.
There is no formal minimum age for admission, but it is strongly recommended only to “mature audiences”. Apparently they regularly get people fainting (they call it “falling down ovations”). So be warned!
Time required: on average I would estimate roughly 45 minutes to an hour. Some with a more fragile disposition may want to hurry through the exhibition much faster than that, while those who really get off on every little nasty detail that can be found here may need longer. There's certainly enough reading material and film footage to last you hours on end.
Combinations with other dark destinations: Los Angeles
has two other museums covered on this website, both on the topic of the Holocaust
(and related themes), namely the MOT
and the LAMOTH
. Either can serve as a sobering counterpoint to the Museum of Death's gory but somewhat nonchalant approach to its topic. After all, when it comes to the Holocaust there is definitely no scope for the kind of playful morbidity entertained at the MoD.
Oh, and for those who (unlike me) are into searching out and gawping at famous murder sites: the L.A.
house on Cielo Drive in which the Manson Family committed their bloody crimes, and which later (in)famously was used as a studio by Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor (he made the ingenious album “The Downward Spiral
” here), has meanwhile been demolished to make way for a new development. So don't bother going there. Even the original street address number (10050) no longer exists.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The museum is right on Hollywood Boulevard, just a short stroll from the eastern end of the Walk of Fame, and you can find stars represented at this end that can be seen as fitting in with the Museum of Death's horror-film-like appeal, e.g. Vincent Price!
Turn round and look north – if you can find a gap between the houses – and you might spot the famous Hollywood sign high up on the hillside. A bit further east is the landmark art deco edifice of the Griffith Observatory. And less than a mile north from Hollywood Boulevard is the famous open-air amphitheatre of the Hollywood Bowl.
Much of L.A.
's movie- and music-business-related entertainment stuff is lined up further along to the west, on Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset “Strip” towards Beverly Hills.
- MoD 1 - Museum of Death
- MoD 2 - Depeche Mode were right
- MoD 3 - serial killer worship
- MoD 4 - amphibious Siamese twin
- MoD 5 - no touch
- MoD 6 - no photography in the exhibition - for good reasons
- MoD 7 - guillotine on display outside
- MoD 8 - more outside exhibits
- MoD 9 - fitting star nearby on Hollywood Blvd