5 Museum Collections for the Morbidly Curious

Strange matter makes for fascinating museum collections

Museum of Natural History Florence
••• La Specola, Museum of Natural History Florence. La Specola

Museums of strange, medical and macabre materials have been popular for centuries. There is a renewed interest in death which takes much of its inspiration from the Victorian era. Organizations like " The Order of the Good Death" are committed to creating a cultural life around dying and there are five museums which have become flashpoints of scholarship and inspiration.

La Specola in Florence was begun in the late 18th century as a science museum, but it's collections today inspire art students looking for unusual inspiration.

The Mutter Museum in Philadelphia is an old and well-respected museum of medical history in the city that gave us "​The Gross Clinic" by Thomas Eakins. The Museum of Death in Hollywood and New Orleans focuses on death in popular culture while the new Morbid Anatomy Museum in Williamsburg fosters a growing community through its robust program of lectures and workshops. Finally, Warren Museum in Boston has a small but significant collection including one very famous skull. Here's an in-depth look at their unique museums. Check their websites for current prices and hours.

La Specola (Museo di Storia Naturale)

While art students naturally flock to the Uffizi in Florence, they also love  ​​La Specola, a place where they can sketch butterflies, birds and anatomical wax figures.

This museum grew from the Medici family collection and is the oldest public museum in Europe. Among the great art they commissioned, they also assembled collections of fossils, minerals, and exotic plants.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was fashionable in Europe to display this objects in wunderkammers or cabinets of curiosities. These collections combined with a large book collection were used to create a Museum of Natural History right in a block of buildings adjacent to the Pitti Palace. "La Specola" was officially opened in 1775 and was the first natural history museum created for the public.

Before the 19th century, there were few museums which kept public hours, gallery guides and tours as we know museums today.

Over the centuries the museum as acquired diverse and sometimes incongruous collections including anthropological, botanical specimens as well as dinosaur bones. It also has instruments used for physics, chemistry and astronomy and a hall dedicated to the great Florentine astronomer Galileo Galilei that contains his astronomical tools and devices.

The museum today as 24 galleries full of animals preserved by taxidermy. Most notably is a hippopotamus that was owned by the Grand Duke in the late 1600s and lived behind the Pitti Palace in the Boboli Gardens. Strange as that sounds, it was a sign of status and power for Renaissance and Baroque royalty to have menageries or to receive gifts of animals from India or Africa. 

An additional 10 galleries are devoted to the anatomic waxes, truly a treasure for art students who are learning anatomy. Each is a work of art unto itself these waxes were created from real corpses in the late 1700s and early 1800s to teach anatomy to medical students. Perhaps most strange are the "Venuses", models of nude women in alluring poses but with their abdomens pulled open and displayed.

Legend says that these were a favorite exhibition of the Marquis de Sade.  

In overcrowded Florence where it's hard to find a museum without a long line wrapped around the building, La Specola is often empty and quiet.

The Morbid Anatomy Museum

The Morbid Anatomy Museum is also a non-profit institution and event space in the ultra-hip Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. Its mission is "dedicated to the celebration and exhibition of artifacts, histories, and ideas which fall between the cracks of high and low culture, death and beauty, and disciplinary divides."

While the museum itself is essentially one room and could benefit greatly from wall labels and some curatorial prose, the real gem of this museum is its offbeat programming. There are lectures by scholars, museum curators, and artists on topics ranging from Santa Muerte, alchemy, Victorian mourning photos and dissection.

Mouse taxidermy classes are particularly popular. Led by a "taxidermist-in-residence", class participants remove the skin from a real mouse, create an armature to pose the mouse as a human as was popular in Victorian England, and dress it in steampunk fashion. Other workshops include the "Anthropomorphic Insect Shadowbox Workshop" led by Daisy Tainton, former Senior Insect Preparator at the American Museum of Natural History and a "Bat Skeleton Articulation Class." Check Morbid Anatomy Museum's events page for a full schedule of upcoming classes, lectures, and performances.

In the past, the museum has hosted a popular flea market. Now there is a store that sells art, books, and objects related to "the intersection of art and medicine, death and beauty."

Mutter Museum

Have you ever wondered what Einstein's brain looked like? Nope, me either, but it's on display in Philadelphia at what is considered America's finest museum of medical history.  The Mutter Museum is devoted to helping the public understand "the mysteries and beauty of the human body and to appreciate the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease. The exhibitions feel like 19th-century "curiosity cabinets and display large collections of anatomical specimens, models, and medical instruments. 

The Mutter is one of Philadelphia's most popular tourist destinations as it has been on dozens of television shows. The museum's founder is the subject of the 2014 book "Dr. Mutter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine" It has educational programming for middle school and high school students with the goal of introducing them to the history of medicine.

Highlights of the collection include: 

  • Soap Lady, a mummified woman whose body is mysteriously encased in a soap-like substance.
  • Viennese anatomist Dr. Joseph Hyrtl’s human skull collection
  • Plaster cast and conjoined liver of “Siamese twins” Chang & Eng
  • Specimen from John Wilkes Booth’s vertebra
  • Jaw tumor of President Grover Cleveland
  • Rotating exhibits of photographic art and illustrations
  • Tallest skeleton on display in North America
  • The 9-foot colon of a man who died at age 30 from severe constipation
  • And yes ...Einstein’s brain!!

The Mutter also has a robust schedule of lectures about public health, science education and current events which strike a more intellectual and less ghoulish chord.

Museum of Death

The Museum of Death first opened in San Diego's first mortuary in June of 1995. Owners JD Healy and Cathee Shultz founded the museum to fill a void in death education which they felt was sorely lacking in American culture. As they say, death became their life's work.

Now in Hollywood, California, the Museum boasts a collection of terrifying objects and images including:

  • The world's largest collection of serial murderer artwork
  • Photos of the Charles Manson crime scenes
  • The severed, guillotined head of Henri Landru, a French serial killer and real-life "Bluebeard".
  • Morgue photos from the Black Dahlia murders
  • A collection of body bags and coffins
  • Replicas of execution devices
  • Mortician and autopsy instruments
  • Pet taxidermy
  • Videos of autopsies
  • Videos of serial killers
  • Heaven's Gate Cult recruiting video
  • The original Traces of Death videos of real death footage

Warren Anatomical Museum

Typical of doctors in the 19th century, Dr. Warren collected anatomical specimens for study and teaching. Upon retirement, he left his collection of 15,000 specimens to Harvard University. Today a small, but an extraordinary segment of his collection is on display on the 5th Floor of the Countway Library of Medicine in Boston. Sign in with the security guard and take the elevator up.

Also on display is part of a phrenological collection which includes a pair of conjoined fetal skeletons and an exploded skull. Most notable is the skull of Phineas Gage, a laborer who survived having a large iron rod driven directly through his skull. His personality was greatly altered leading doctors to have a far greater understanding of how different parts of the brain function and affect human behavior.

The Museum's exhibition gallery is located on the fifth floor of the Countway Library of Medicine. You will need to sign in with the guard, then take the elevator to the fifth floor.