Things I Learned in Museums

Some people love art museums; others love natural history museums.  Some love space museums, science museums, or archaeological museums.

I love morbid museums.  Or, rather, morbid (or odd) museum exhibits.  I’d pass up a collection of Dali paintings to see a collection of dead bodies or weird surgical equipment any day!

I skipped the Alhambra and went to an exhibit on the Spanish Inquisition at the Palacio de los Olvidados in Granada; didn’t go to the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, but I went to the Erotic Museum.  In London, I visited the Wellcome Collection and an exhibit on World War I medical advances at the Science Museum instead of going to the British Museum; in Bristol, I saw an exhibit on skeletons unearthed at the M Shed. Finally, I spent my one hour of freedom in Dublin at an exhibit on perfectly preserved millennia-old bog bodies.

I’m also one of those people who read everything when I visit a museum, much to the chagrin of the people with me; here’s a collection of fun / unexpected facts I learned while reading:

  • Owls are a sign of bad luck in East Africa; if an owl is near someone’s house, it’s taken as a sign that someone in that house will become gravely ill or die.
  • Traditional Luo homes in Kenya are circular so nothing can be hidden in corners; a guide also told me that the third wife in the exhibit had more personal objects than the first wife because she was “the freshest.”
  • Most of the ivory sent to the US from Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries was carved in and shipped out from… Connecticut.
  • Rhinoceros viper scales are so sharp they can cut handlers!
  • It’s relatively easy to hold a crocodile’s mouth shut (if you can manage to get your hands around it) because even though they have incredibly powerful bites, the muscles used to open their mouths are pretty weak.
From the Livingstone Museum in Zambia
  • People were tortured during the Inquisition for foul language and gossip.
  • The Granada “Court of Faith” opened in 1492 – big year for Spain.
  • As the church and nobility ran out of heretics to persecute, they started jailing and torturing others for crimes of morality: adultery, sodomy, and witchcraft.
  • While Queen Isabella used the Inquisition as a way to unite the Catholic majority against a common enemy and by doing so boost her plummeting popularity, Ferdinand was much more concerned with how much money the “heretics” had, as all of their property was taken once they were accused, and the crown was in debt.
  • In ancient Egypt, a fellatrix was a woman who was trained in the art of fellatio.
  • Salvador Dali used to attend orgies but never interacted with other people at them. Also, he was afraid of grasshoppers!  Strange tidbit to pick up at an erotic museum.


  • In the late medieval period in Europe, women were sometimes marched through a town wearing a mask called a scold’s bridle, which made it extremely painful to talk, as a punishment for nagging their husbands.
  • Trepanning (drilling holes into someone’s skull) used to be used as a practice to release the evil spirits from that person’s body.



  •  So many people died from the plague in the 14th century that special cemeteries, called catastrophe burial sites, were created to accommodate all the bodies – sometimes buried five deep.  One such site became home to the Royal Mint after it was excavated.
  • The Cross Bones burial ground in Southwark – a pauper’s cemetery – was originally created as a space to bury “single women,” which at the time was a euphemism for prostitutes.
  • 22,000 glass eyes were distributed to soldiers by the British army after WWI.
The artificial limb was free, but repairs weren’t!
  • For a new king’s inauguration in parts of Ireland, Britain, and northern Europe during parts of the Bronze Age and Iron Age, there were ritual killings / human sacrifices made, the bodies of which were then deposited into bogs.


  • Sucking a king’s nipples was an ancient Irish way to show submission, so if a man had his nipples cut off, he was no longer eligible for kingship.

There are many more forgotten facts rattling around in my lost memories and on my stolen SD card, wherever it may be. For now, I’ll leave you with this beautiful piece of art (it’s a spinal column and nerves, in case you were wondering!):




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