Preserved human flesh at Amsterdam’s Tattoo Museum

preserved human flesh
This is exactly what it looks like–the preserved human flesh of a tattooed man. Judging from the style and subject, I’d say it’s from a nineteenth century American sailor. I spotted it sitting on the director’s desk at Amsterdam’s Tattoo Museum.

Ah, Amsterdam! I’ve visited you so many times and yet you always have new surprises for me.

Amsterdam is a great city for museums. There are two sex museums, a marijuana museum, and a heap of world-class art museums. In a city known for extremes, it’s hard to stand out, yet the Tattoo Museum manages to do just that.

The product of three decades of collecting by local eccentric and celebrity Henk Schiffmacher, the collection includes everything and anything related to tattooing that Henk has been able to gather up from God-knows-where.

I have dim memories of a previous visit to this museum back in 1993. Then it was in a small space crammed with odd artifacts. It’s been closed for the past several years and now it has just reopened in two rambling old mansions. When I visited they were still setting up and the exhibits were spread out in disarray. Henk was running around screaming at the contractors for being behind schedule while a local TV crew dogged his steps. I wandered off on my own to explore.

%Gallery-139057%It was fun to see this half-completed museum-in-the-making and while most of the collection was still in boxes, there was no shortage of curiosities to study. The Tattoo Museum covers the entire history of skin art and has artifacts from all over the world, including needles, old shop signs, photographs, flashes (ready-made designs), and freak show posters. Some of the items, like the statues from the South Seas and the stuffed monkey, show that like all true collectors, Henk can’t resist a cool item even if it doesn’t exactly fit in his collection. To my disappointment I didn’t see any shrunken heads. Maybe he hadn’t unpacked them yet.

The new space allows much more room for displays and the upper floor is being turned into a tattoo parlor where several expert skin artists can give you a memento of your visit. Henk is a tattoo artist himself and if you’re lucky you might even get him to pick up a needle and mark you. Much cooler than visiting the gift shop!

As a fan off all things macabre, I was attracted by the preserved human flesh, one of the few things I clearly remember from my previous visit. There are several of them in the museum’s collection. These pickled tattoos aren’t unique. London’s Wellcome Collection has 300 specimens of preserved human flesh bearing tattoos collected by a French military surgeon who cut them from the bodies of dead French soldiers. I’ve come across examples in other collections too.

A cynic might say they’re fake, and some of them undoubtedly are. Unscrupulous carnies or salesmen could produce them easily enough from animal skin. Yet I believe most are real, like those from the Wellcome Collection. Back around the turn of the last century there was a craze in collecting human remains, whether to study the shapes of skulls or preserving scalps or for various other reasons. It would have been easy enough to collect tattooed skin from cadavers. One hopes that the next-of-kin received compensation, but that probably didn’t happen most of the time.

Rather than see these human remains as something disgusting and demeaning, I find them rather life-affirming. The common working Joe is forgotten soon after he dies. How many nineteenth century sailors can you name who weren’t famous explorers? Yet their self-expression through body art lives on. We can look at these samples and catch a glimpse of someone who has long been dead.

Like the guy whose skin adorns the top of this post. There he is, with his patriotic wife and his ship. Do the letters “A.R.” stand for his name, or hers? Or do they stand for “American Republic” as the U.S. was sometimes referred to back then? We can’t know, but this man hasn’t been entirely lost to history. I know about him now, and thanks to Henk, you know about him too.

I wandered around for two hours and Henk was still bustling around with his contractors. I decided he was too busy to bother. When I go back to Amsterdam next year I’ll arrange an interview, because I’m dying to talk with the man behind such a unique collection.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Amsterdam’s booming Eastern Docklands!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own. I have no idea what the Tourism Bureau thinks of preserved human flesh.

Remains of forgotten genocide victims returned by Berlin museum

genocide, Herero genocide, NamibiaIt’s the genocide most people have forgotten, a ruthless extermination of men, women, and children while an uncaring world focused on other things.

From 1904 to 1908, German colonial rulers in what is now Namibia systematically exterminated the Herero and Nama people. They had rebelled against the colonizers and the German army quickly defeated them. Not satisfied with a only a military victory, the Germans pushed both tribes into the desert, where they starved and died of thirst. Nobody knows how many perished but it may have been as many as 100,000.

A grim relic of this genocide are twenty Herero and Nama skulls kept in the Berlin Medical Historical Museum. One skull is from a three-year-old boy. Originally they had been preserved with the skin and hair intact and used for “studies” to prove the superiority of the white race.

This week the skulls were returned to tribal leaders after an apology and a ceremony. This is the latest in a series of repatriations of human remains to native peoples from museums. Many nations, the United States included, have passed laws requiring human remains to be returned. Identification and legal technicalities slow down the process, however. Berlin collections still include about 7,000 skulls. Then there’s the question of shrunken heads, which were often sold by tribal peoples to collectors, and of very ancient remains that cannot be traced to an existing tribe.

We forget genocides at our peril. Hitler felt he could get away with the Holocaust because nobody cared about the genocide of the Herero and Nama, or the genocide of the Armenians during World War One. Even many of the Holocaust’s victims are forgotten. While everyone knows six million Jews died, many are unaware of the millions of Slavs, Gypsies, political activists, homosexuals, Born-Again Christians, and disabled who were also killed.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

No skeletons on the New Delhi metro, please

New Delhi
A friend of mine, freelance photographer Jane Shepherdson, was recently in New Delhi and rode on the city’s metro (subway system). She captured this odd sign about what’s prohibited for passengers to carry.

New DelhiSome of it is predictable, such as explosives, guns, and radioactive materials. You also can’t carry “manure of any kind” (including your own, one would suppose) or rags. That includes oily rags in case you’re wondering.

What really caught her eye was the prohibition against passengers carrying “Human skeleton, ashes, and part of Human body”.

Makes sense to me. When I’m on public transport I only want to share it with the living. What’s scary, though, is that they wouldn’t have put this sign up unless someone had actually carried body parts on the metro. So if you’re going to New Delhi, please, leave the body parts in your hotel room.

Saints’ relics in Rome


Everywhere you go in Rome, there are body parts on display.

The churches are full of them, and people travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to see them. They’re the mortal remains of saints and apostles and are venerated as holy relics.

Relics were big business in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Every church wanted some because it meant pilgrims would come visit, and pilgrims meant money. Pilgrims were the original tourists and churches fought to be on the pilgrimage route as much as modern hotels fight to be on the tourist trail. Relics were bought, sold, stolen, and forged so much that it’s almost impossible to say whether a particular bone really came from a particular saint. What’s for certain is that their appeal hasn’t totally died away. People still come to the churches of Rome to see the remnants of their favorite holy person.

Being new to Rome, I recruited the help of two Italy experts, historian Angela K. Nickerson and Gadling’s own relic hunter David Farley. With their help I stumbled into the weird world of saint’s relics, a side of Catholicism that in the present day no longer takes center stage yet is still very much in the minds of modern pilgrims.

The mother of all relic collections can be found in and around St. John Lateran, founded in about the year 314 AD as the first Christian basilica in Rome during the twilight years of paganism. While Constantine seems to have been ambivalent about the new faith, his mother Helena embraced Christianity wholeheartedly. She went to the Holy Land and dug around until she found the True Cross, the Spear of Longinus, various holy corpses, and other relics. Her search proved so fruitful that she later became the patron saint of archaeologists. Helena brought these relics back to Rome, where many can still be seen. Her biggest haul was the Scala Santa, the steps to Pontus Pilate’s palace that Jesus walked up on the way to be condemned to death. These are housed in a building right next to St. John Lateran. The faithful still crawl up it on their knees, deep in prayer. A sign by the bottom of the steps informs visitors in a half dozen languages that it is forbidden to walk up. One must crawl or not go up at all.

%Gallery-102761%Other relics have since disappeared or have been moved. The True Cross was broken up and pieces can be found just about everywhere. Two later additions to St. John Lateran are the heads of Saints Peter and Paul, which rest in a pair of gold caskets above the altar. If you want to see the head of John the Baptist, head on over to San Silvestro in Capite.

Some of Helena’s relics ended up in Santa Croce en Gerusalemme, perhaps the most relic-intensive church in Rome. There are bits of the True Cross, the signboard from the Cross that says “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”, part of the crown of thorns, and the finger bone of St. Thomas. This is said to be the same finger he used to probe Christ’s wound, proving Christ was really dead and giving rise to the expression “Doubting Thomas”.

For more bones go to San Ignazio, where a side chapel houses a grandiose baroque altar filled with dozens of skulls, femurs, and other bones are incorporated into the decoration. Like the Scala Santa it attracts a steady group of the faithful. When I was there two ancient Italians were praying to these reminders of their immanent fate..

For something a little more romantic, go to Santa Maria en Cosmodin. This church, sitting atop a pagan cemetery, has the skull of Saint Valentine himself. On Valentine’s Day the church officials open up the catacombs beneath the church for tours, the only day they do so. Other churches have something to offer too. Santa Prassede has the column to which Jesus was chained while he was flogged. San Paolo fuori le Mura has St. Paul’s tomb and part of the chain he wore while under arrest. St. Peter’s, of course, has the bones of St. Peter. In fact, it’s hard to find a church that doesn’t have some little memento, human or otherwise, of the early days of Christianity.

And then there are the mummified monks. . .

Don’t miss the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side.

Coming up next: The triumph of death: mummified monks of Rome’s Capuchin Crypt!

Galileo’s fingers go on display

Tourists in Florence can now learn more about the city’s most famous resident at The Museum of the History of Science, which has just reopened as the Galileo Museum.

Galileo (1564-1642) was one of the greatest scientists of the Renaissance. He made significant advances in physics and mathematics and made history when he turned a newfangled gadget called the telescope towards the night sky and discovered that Jupiter has moons and Venus has phases. These observations strengthened his conviction that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe and in fact revolved around the Sun. The Catholic Church felt threatened by this idea and put him on trial for heresy. Galileo spent his final years under house arrest.

The museum preserves the lens from his famous telescope as well as other artifacts from Galileo’s life and times, including some rather macabre ones. When Galileo’s body was being moved to a new tomb in 1737 an admirer cut off three fingers off the right hand (the thumb, index, and middle finger, if you must know), a vertebra, and a tooth. The thumb, middle finger, and tooth went missing for many years but recently turned up at an auction. They’re now back home in Florence and are the most unusual artifacts in the Galileo Museum.

Besides the body parts of a persecuted genius, the museum has an impressive collection of scientific instruments. The displays explain how these instruments helped expand humanity’s knowledge. Science museums are fascinating places, and if you can’t make it to Florence this year, check out these science museums in London and Northern California.

“Galileo Galilei showing the Doge of Venice how to use the telescope”, fresco by Giuseppe Bertini, 1858.