June 29, 2012

Dark Tourism: where do we draw the line?

Museum of Death

The Museum of Death on Sunset Boulevard

I had seen the Museum of Death on Sunset Boulevard advertised in some LA magazine or brochure and mentioned it to my husband as somewhere he might want to pop into while I was at a travel conference in Downtown LA. Being a cop who deals with homicides on an all-too-regular basis in Auckland, I knew he’d probably find this interesting. I, on the other hand, would not.

But so it happened that we were together on our hop-on-hop-off bus from Sunset, through West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, when stop 15 was conveniently located a block from this spooky museum. If you can call it a museum. It’s more like a building housing the memorabilia of a twisted man.

Museum of Death

Owner JD or James Dean, poses by the entrance to his death rooms

Against my better judgement I went in. $15 he charged us. Each. All I can say is this is not for the faint-hearted or those who have a tendency for nightmares. Apparently the First Amendment right to freedom of expression is more important than a victim’s right to privacy and the owner of this hideous collection of death paraphernalia, who called himself James Dean, has been collecting newsclippings, photographs, mortuary signs and death bits and pieces for 20+ years and has 5000 pieces, not all of it on display here.

We pushed aside the beaded curtains and a woman with her husband quietly reading about some grisly murder from a newspaper clipping on the wall nearly dropped on the floor with fright. Such is the feeling you get in this place. We laughed uneasily and our husbands busied themselves with more news stories. I didn’t stray far. There were body bags, old electric chair parts, crime scene photos of the most heinous kind. He even has a room filled with his own taxidermied pets. The big Lassie dog looked like it needed a good dusting. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Suffice to say I saw photos that day that a person should never see and the perpetrators of one particularly horrific crime were caught thanks to the photo processor at Walmart who called the police when he came across the same photos I’m now looking at: a naked woman posing with her dead husband with his own mutilated penis rammed into his mouth by the boyfriend taking the photos.

Auschwitz barracks

Auschwitz barracks. Pic Milan Boers

I was shocked. My stomach turned. I wanted to use the loo but when I found it behind red velvet curtains down some winding hall, I was too scared to enter. I needed to get out of there. Stat.

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All this brings up the topic of Dark Tourism. It’s a lucrative business. But where should we draw the line?

Is visiting the death camps of Auschwitz sadistic and voyeuristic or is it to pay hommage to the dead? Is gawping at pickled body parts at Philadelphia’s medical Mutter Museum, (read my blog on this here) educational or macabre?

Or what about the touring Bodies Exhibition which are sliced and diced human beings on display that school groups come to visit on the pretext of learning how the human body works, yet these are deceased people?

Ted Bundy's VW

Serial killer Ted Bundy’s VW in the Crime Museum

Or what about Washington DC’s Crime Museum which seems to glorify the likes of Ted Bundy whose car is parked in the lobby showing exactly how he hid his victims.

I’ve visited the catacombs in Lima and touched the bones of bodies that were filed en masse by type rather than buried whole. It was eerie, yet a part of our history that we would be wise not to ignore.

Mutter Museum Philadelphia

The Mutter Museum’s skull wall. Pic George Widman

Arguments for an against slum tourism or earthquake tours range from it being an altruistic helping hand to the communities with the injection of cash such tours bring in, to equating this peering at the poor like animals in a zoo and any money that tourists invariably give them reinforces their lifestyle and turns them into beggars.

Or does a tour like this one of quake damaged Christchurch help those of us who don’t live there better understand what they went, and still are going through?

It is a conundrum. I have found myself drawing the line around buildings and monuments that remember a past tragedy. I don’t consider the New York 9-11 tower dark tourism, neither the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. But really, is the latter any different to the London Dungeon? I was equally disturbed at both.

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About Megan Singleton

Megan

Megan Singleton is a travel writer, blogger and radio correspondent. She's been gallivanting around the world telling stories for the last 16 years and has her suitcase always half packed (or half un-packed!) Follow along on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for monthly newsletters if you want to keep up with the journey!

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