Let's See Those Macabre Exhibits

Museums are bastions of information and knowledge. Exhibits allow us to peer into the past and gain a better understanding of the world’s history. However, there are those exhibits that provide us with insight, while making our stomachs churn. They allow us to journey through the darker, more macabre side of history—and maybe rethink our lunch.


(Image: Bullenwächter/Public Domain)

In the National Museum of Ireland, an exhibit known as Kingship and Sacrifice, displays the deteriorated and mummified body parts of sacrifice victims found in Ireland’s bogs. The peat in which they were buried preserved their bodies, many still containing flesh. A short journey down a hallway in the Faculty of Medicine building at the Complutense University in Madrid ends at a morbid array of items. More than 800 skulls, a variety of mummies, and antique pharmaceuticals are among the ghastly collection. The exhibit was designed for students with an interest in medical and forensic history. In Vienna, among the ghastly medieval devices designed for punishment, one stands out among the others at the Kriminalmuseum. The Stachelstuhl was a chair lined with spikes and razors designed to inflict pain from all sides. These are just a few of the macabre or morbid exhibits found in museums around the world that make us gasp, while tapping into our curiosity. And with that said, we’d like to see more!

In the thread below, tell us about a macabre exhibit that gave you goosebumps. Where is it located, and what’s the history/purpose behind the exhibit? What stuck with you the most after the visit? Perhaps there’s an exhibit you’ve been dying to see, tell us about it!! Be sure to include any pictures you might have as well, and drop in your Instagram handle. Your response and photo may be included in an upcoming round-up article on Atlas Obscura. Tis the season! :ghost::vampire:

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Wish I had pics from the ‘‘Bodies’’ exhibit I went to a few years back. It was temporary and my family was interested in seeing it. It consisted of preserved human bodies. Imagine people, but without their skin, displayed with all kinds of poses. I experienced paleness and a paramedic had to bring a chair for me to catch my breath, I’m sensitive to delicate stuff like this, and still am (can’t help it).

In case anyone’s interested:
http://www.premierexhibitions.com/exhibitions/4/4/bodies-exhibition

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You’re not allowed to take photos inside as it is a religious place, but the Capuchin Crypts in Rome are amazing and overwhelming. They’re also mega-macabre:

Decorations made from the pelvises or skulls or femurs of deceased monks adorn the crypts. It’s fascinating and also very dark.

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Great topic - I’ve often considered that many of the exhibits I go to see can be hard for folks to stomach (many surgical museums, for example). The one that stands out most as winning the “I really didn’t need to see that” award is probably the Museum of Death in New Orleans. Watching autopsy footage does make me feel a bit queasy and some of the photography there was just a bit much. I’m still glad I went though (but also glad that I did it while my wife went back to the hotel for a nap).

More recently I visited the Medieval Torture Museum in St. Augustine Florida, which is pretty challenging in terms of its content and displays. I don’t think it was ever published, but you can see the pending write up here: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/medieval-torture-museum-3

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I almost included the Museum of Death in the original post! My mom’s a nurse and wanted to go into forensics, so lets just say my house growing up was filled with “interesting” surgical books and medical history lol. Oh and thanks for sharing!! :beers:

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The Morgagni Museum in Padova is a must-see, but seemingly little known collection of pathological anatomy. Surprisingly there’s no entry for it on Atlas Obscura, but here are some photos from a book: His Anatomical Majesty - Bizzarro Bazar

Arguably the strangest and most disturbing item in the collection is this (clearly haunted) human taxidermy: The Punished Suicide – Death & the Maiden

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That picture is from the permanent peat body exhibition at the museum of archaeology in Schloss Gottorf in Germany. Fascinating year round exhibition.
There are a good few peat bodies on exhibition in Denmark, notably Tollund Man and Grauballe Man, the first in such good condition when found in 1950, that is was first thought, he was a recent murder victim.

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The Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick MD. Really interesting, but my husband and I plunked out after the photos of the piles of amputated limbs.

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I’ve seen that exhibit. It was fascinating! Off to one side of it though, there was a table that looked unremarkable until you got near enough to chat with the docent. It was a display of the human body that could be manipulated and opened/sliced and etc in 3D. The model? Was a woman who donated her body to science. They froze the body and then sliced it into micrometer thin slices and took color photos of each slice. That data could then be manipulated in 3D, making it simple to observe everything from a single organ to an entire system. They’re using these tables in place of cadavers in medical schools because they are endlessly resettable, and don’t stink like cadavers might. Highly recommend a visit!

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The Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Notable permanent holdings are slides from Einstein’s brain, the Soap Lady, the livers of Chang and Eng (Siamese twins).

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Second the Mutter! I did an overnight there, in the upper gallery, and it was a fantastic experience. We also got to tour the off-exhibit stacks — they have an original “On the Origin of Species” and the like! Also a great penis bone collection. :slight_smile:

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Musee Fragonard is a small museum on the outskirts of Paris, actually inside their veterinary college. I don’t think that anything else touches it for the macabre. These are old creations, made prior to the French revolution.


I finally got to go a few years ago and it did not disappoint. Haunting.

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I love the Surgeon’s Hall museums in Edinburgh, it has amazing and extensive collections and macabre programming. My favorite piece is definitely the book made from the skin of serial killer William Burke of Burke & Hare who stole corpses and created their own, in order to illegally sell the cadavers to the University of Edinburgh. They also have a very memorable collection of pathological anatomy. If you wish to see a foot with gangrene or a spine that grew in a s shape, it’s the place to be!

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Museo de las Momias in Guanajuato, Mexico. Dozens of bodies that has been naturally mummified by the local soil, then put on display in a dusty old museum. Some were babies. Quite graphic and shocking at times…

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Yemrehanna Kristos, a church in a cave high on a hillside near Lalibela, Ethiopia. Circa 900AD. 5000 bodies of pilgrims who came here to die.

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Check out the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, an awesome city to visit for so many reasons! This museum holds medical anomalies and specimens dating from the mid 1800’s onwards. It is heart rending, horrifying and awe-inspiring, and leaves you grateful for modern medicine.

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I visited the Bendary Fortress in the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic last month. A former dungeon in this 15 century fortress now features a museum of medieval torture instruments, several of which I photographed. Macabre they are.

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I’ve visited anatomical/medical museums all over the world, but my favorite is Museum Vrolik in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Their collection is even better and of higher quality than that of the Mutter Museum. They’ve got a lot of pathology/deformations, dry and wet specimens from the 16th until the 20th century, all in a wonderful atmospheric dark exhibition space where there are hardly any visitors. Most people don’t even know it, it’s really a hidden gem!

See www.museumvrolik.nl

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I saw the Bodies exhibit in Fort Lauderdale, it was fascinating. This was quite a few years ago.

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That Pear of Anguish is affecting me and I am thousands of miles away from it!!!