NEW ORLEANS — No matter how strong your stomach for the macabre, there is likely some moment in the Museum of Death that will make it twist. The Hollywood-based museum confronts the taboo that often shrouds the end of life, collecting everything from American funeral home matchbooks to serial killer art. On June 1, it celebrated its 20th anniversary with a second branch in New Orleans.
I visited last month during their soft opening, when things were still coming together in their French Quarter space. An alligator skeleton attacking a human skeleton eases you into the experience, where each new room is separated by a curtain. No photographs are allowed, for reasons of sensitivity and because co-founders JD Healy and Cathee Shult want it to be a totally immersive experience, where you can’t hide behind your smart phone. Imagine cases of letters from Jeffrey Dahmer, funerary garments that clothe a corpse for casket viewing, ornate Tibetan kapala skulls, crime scene photographs, an autopsy video, and oddball items like underwear Aileen Wuornos wore on death row. My stomach churning moment finally came in a backroom theater, where videos of people dying in public played in a loop.
Despite the seeming spectacle of some of it, the Museum of Death is very much devoted to sharing information, and it’s an interesting approach for an organization like this to have two branches in major American tourist centers, and be actively collecting material that constantly pushes visitor comfort lines. Last year, the museum acquired the Thanatron, the homemade machine that Jack Kevorkian used to administer death to some of the 130 willing participants from 1990 to 1998. It’s one thing to read about the assisted suicides, and quite another to be standing in front of the device alone in the museum, the dangling syringes and battered briefcase it was carried in a reminder that this is what people in the United States had to resort to in order to get the end they wanted.
“The owners saw this subject matter that for some reason is a taboo, that we all have to deal with at some point,” Erek Michael, the manager at the Hollywood Museum of Death, told me over the phone. He pointed out that in much of the rest of the world, death is more embraced as part of the life cycle, whereas in the United States we rarely look right at its decaying face.
“The museum is all about the affirmation of life when you cut right down to it,” he said. “On the way out we ask everyone: doesn’t it feel great to be alive? It elicits a chuckle, but we mean it.”
He added that this is also a country where “we do have that kind of uniquely American phenomenon of serial killers and mass murderers who are kind of put on a pedestal,” where horrific crimes make them into sorts of celebrities, something which the museum in Hollywood explores with exhibitions on locals Charles Manson and O.J. Simpson. The New Orleans museum has three times the space of the Hollywood location, and regional content is planned for the future, although the Kevorkian machine will be on longterm view.
While death in Hollywood certainly has a history of widespread fascination, such as the Black Dahlia murder and the Heaven’s Gate cult, both of which are included in the West Coast museum, New Orleans has its own complex culture of mortality. I stopped in the museum after visiting another major tourist attraction: St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, where almost every visitor pays tribute at the tomb of Marie Laveau, the “Voodoo Queen.” Also walking distance is the Voodoo Museum, where real human remains and a small coffin mingle with the gris-gris as a gateway to the African and European-influenced religion, and right on central Jackson Square the Louisiana State Museum prominently displays the bronze death mask of Napoleon. Even the all-American National World War II Museum is currently hosting the Final Mission: The USS Tang Submarine Experience, an interactive exhibition on a doomed World War II engagement, where at the “end of the experience, [visitors] will discover if they were among those lost or one of the few who, after a harrowing ordeal at sea, suffered on in Japanese captivity.”
This isn’t even getting into the most harrowing of them all: the devastating 2005 Hurricane Katrina and its subsequent flooding. Which leads to the question, do we really need a museum about death when it’s all around us? I would argue that we do, as even if each of us has its presence in our lives, we rarely consider it so directly, and even at its most grisly the museum is reminding us to savor those lives. On ending our phone conversation, Erek Michael said the goodbye that each museum visitor also hears before they walk out the door: “Have a nice life!”
The New Orleans Museum of Death opened June 1 (227 Dauphine Street, New Orleans, Louisiana).