The creepy history of museums

The Kansas City Museum is one of many in the country embracing Halloween this year, but who knew that the origin of these nonprofits is actually quite macabre?


kansas city museum

Maybe only people who realize that the history of pretty much anything is quite macabre.


In Kansas City costumed candy-lovers of all ages can trick or treat to their hearts’ content down a section of Gladstone Avenue near the Kansas City Museum. Most of the houses in the vicinity went all out with spooky decorations. Right across the street from the museum, a full cast of Dorothy, scarecrow, lion, and ax-wielding tin man mingle among the many kids waiting in line in front of the mansion. 6,000 of them are expected to attend the event tonight.

Crowds are nothing new for museums. They are easily the nonprofits with the most impressive impact numbers, collectively hosting about 850 million unique visits a year in this country alone. One of the many reason’s they’re attractive to philanthropists is their reputation for packaging dry adult subjects like Renaissance art or biodiversity into fun, bite-size educational morsels that young visitors are happy to devour. Yet early museums weren’t accessible to large numbers of guests, nor did they deign to cater to children. In fact, the main thing ancient and early modern museums had in common with the Kansas City Museum on Halloween night is that they were designed to scare, disgust, and make uncomfortable the people passing through.

The first museum was probably the one established by Princess Ennigaldi of the Neo-Babylonian Empire around 530 BCE, but it took until the Middle Ages for them to really catch on in the Middle East and in Europe. They were collections of various “curiosities” maintained and curated by wealthy individuals for the benefit of their wealthy friends. Aptly called “cabinets of curiosities,” a particularly creepy collection might become renowned far and wide, a “must-see” for visiting nobility and their dignitaries.


museum of ole worm

Anybody who was anybody in the 17th century would’ve hoped for an invitation to this Danish cabinet of curiosity, ran by a physician whose real name was Ole Worm.


The “cabinets” – a humble term that actually used to denote a large room – usually contained ancient vases, swords, scrolls, and other antiquities. There were also the requisite rare gems and shells. The main attractions, though, were the items that made guests question their place and purpose in God’s creation. Relics of saints were always a good bet, especially severed body parts or bloody garb that the poor soul was martyred in. Some curiosity cabinets featured exotic animals stuffed or floating in jars of alcohol. Wooly mammoth tusks were show-stoppers, but the real elite could boast phoenix feathers, unicorn horns, and the femurs of giants. In the early seventeenth century a spectacular English museum maintained by John Tradescant the Younger treated enthralled visitors to a stuffed dodo, a mermaid’s hand, a dragon’s egg, the ceremonial cloak of Wahunsunacawh (known to the English as Chief Powhatan), a piece of the True Cross, and a vial of the blood that had rained down on the Isle of Wight.

The medical curiosities of the day encompassed so-called “monstrous births” as well as the results of terrible accidents. The vast majority of museums used drawings, casts, or sculptures but some had the real deal. Their visitors were treated to the corpses of conjoined twins and victims of elephantiasis; disturbingly large tumors; and famous murderers’ skulls for days, complete with the phrenelogist’s assessment of each.


leipzig monstrous birth

This “monstrous birth” occurred in 18th century Leipzig and was so well-preserved that it can still be viewed in a German museum today.


For all their macabre subject matter, early museums were still considered the pinnacle of polite society. They were valuable because they could fill people with awe that transcended and disrupted the everyday. By making viewers uncomfortable the curators sought to spark reflection and new understanding, making translucent the barrier between the wealthy visitors and the ancient, the exotic, the dangerous, the murdered, and the malformed for just a few hours.