Torture Museums Look At The Dark Side Of History

Torture Museum
Ah, the Good Old Days, when everyone lived in a perpetual Renaissance Festival quaffing ale and shouting “Huzzah!” It must have been wonderful.

Not!

People died young, the cities were filled with rats and open sewers, and God help you if you ever got arrested. You’d be taken to a torture chamber in order to “confess” while being subjected to various imaginative torture devices, like the rack shown here in a photo courtesy Jan Mehlich. It’s from the torture exhibit in the Lubuska Land Museum in Zielona Góra, Poland. A victim would be tied to it and stretched until his limbs popped out of their sockets. The spikes on the cylinder would add an extra level of agony. This museum stands out among torture museums in that many of its objects were used in the local area.

Germany was a pretty rough place back in the Bad Old Days, and this has spawned several good torture museums in the country. The biggest is the Medieval Crime Museum in Rothenburg, with 2,000 square meters of displays on torture, execution and medieval law. Nuremberg has a preserved torture chamber underneath city hall.

Italy was a rough place too, and you can find out more at the Criminal Museum in Rome, the Museo della Tortura housed in the Devil’s Tower in San Gimignano and the Museum of Criminal Anthropology in Turin. The latter museum is interesting because it reflects the 19th century belief that a person’s physical features, especially the shape of the skull, could show criminal proclivities. Hundreds of skulls, brains and death masks from executed criminals are on display, as well as the weapons they used in their crimes and the instruments of their demise.

%Gallery-155223%Many torture museums are found inside castles. The Tower of London has some nasty instruments on display, as does Gravensteen in Ghent, Belgium. Like Poland’s Land Museum, most of the items are locally sourced in a kind of Slow Torture Movement. Check out my post on Muider Castle, which offers a peek at a medieval dungeon that’s an easy day trip from Amsterdam.

If you’re in Amsterdam and don’t feel like a day trip, check out the cheesy yet interesting Torture Museum. Also in The Netherlands is the Prison Gate Museum in The Hague, which may be the world’s oldest torture museum, having opened in 1882. It offers glimpses of such fearsome places as the Jailer’s Quarters, the Interrogation Room and the Judge Chambers. One interesting detail they tell you on the tour is that imprisonment was not considered a punishment, just a way to take a criminal out of circulation until the trial. To really punish an evildoer, they had to be tortured, publicly humiliated, or executed.

In Lima, Peru, you can visit the underground prison and torture chambers of the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition Museum is a sobering look at what happens when a single religion gets to dominate society.

As you can see, most of these museums display the horrors of the past. One museum that doesn’t shy away from more recent crimes against humanity is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which shows what the Khmer Rouge did to systematically destroy Cambodian society. Gadling blogger Jessica Marati said it’s “one of the most maddening, saddening, and intense places you’ll ever visit in your life.” When visiting torture museums, it’s good to remember that these barbarous practices are still used by many governments today.

Albania’s National Museum faces up to Communist past

AlbaniaA new wing of Albania’s National Museum in Tirana opened yesterday that’s dedicated to the abuses of its former Communist government.

Under the harsh rule of Enver Hoxha, shown here in a photo courtesy Forrásjelölés Hasonló, some 100,000 Albanians were executed or sent to prison or forced labor camps, this in a country of only three million people. Torture and intimidation were rife and a network of informers made everyone paranoid.

For a disturbing look at the surreal daily life in this regime, read The Country Where No One Ever Dies by Albanian author Ornela Vorpsi. The last days of Communist rule are seen through the eyes of an adolescent girl whose main dream is simply to be left alone.

That was the dream of a lot of Albanians. The new wing to the museum displays photographs and artifacts documenting the torture and extermination of dissidents. People lived in fear of disappearing into a jail or camp. Hopefully this exhibition will go a small way towards helping Albania come to terms with its past and heal some open wounds.

Visible evidence of the old regime is everywhere in Albania. While Tirana is undergoing a beautification program and the countless statues of Hoxha have been pulled down, thousands of bunkers still litter the country’s beaches, fields, and neighborhoods. The paranoid regime put up an estimated 700,000 of the ugly things despite needing roads and adequate housing for its citizens. One set of them can be seen in the photo below courtesy the Concrete Mushrooms Project.

Albania

Amsterdam’s Torture Museum

torture, Amsterdam, torture museumLike many travelers, I have a soft spot in my heart for tourist traps. Whether it’s the politically incorrect cheesiness of South of the Border or the shabby weirdness of The Thing, nothing brings a smile to my face better than some cheap, gaudy attempt to capture my attention.

Amsterdam’s Torture Museum fits the bill perfectly. Behind a pseudo-spooky facade are reproductions of torture instruments from the Bad Old Days. You’ve got famous nasties such as the rack and the stocks, as well as lesser-known evils like the Flute of Shame. Pictured here is the Inquisition Chair. The victim was strapped in and the weight of his own body caused him to sink onto the spikes. Check out the gallery for more photos and descriptions.

The whole place is lit by weird red, orange, and blue lights and is a maze of stairs and hallways that makes you feel like you’re in a medieval dungeon. Signs in several languages (including English) give basic descriptions of what you’re seeing, and images pulled from old books show the torture instruments in action.

It’s all very garish and exploitative. No attempt is made to be socially redeeming by discussing modern torture. For example, there’s no display about waterboarding, used by the Spanish Inquisition, the Khmer Rouge, and the U.S. government. Of course there shouldn’t be because the U.S. government says waterboarding isn’t torture and they only use it on the guilty anyway. I know they’re speaking the truth because the U.S. government never lies and never makes mistakes.

The Torture Museum’s garish displays and Wikipedia-style descriptions are mere low-brow titillation. It’s when you think of what these objects really mean, and how similar instruments of cruelty are still in common use today, that this horror show becomes truly frightening.

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

Coming up next: Amsterdam day trip: Van Brederode castle!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

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