By Jillian Oliver
The Museum of Death is a trek into an unsettling world where murder, serial killers, deformed animals, and all things shocking greet you at every turn. Whether they make you think, cringe, vomit, or all of the above, the exhibits will certainly incite a reaction–and that's the point.
Started by Post-Punk couple, J.D. Healy and Cathee Shultz, the museum rests in peace in Los Angeles and New Orleans, with the largest collection of serial killer memorabilia and all things dead residing in LA.
If preserved heads of 19th-century murderers and deranged drawings by death row inmates pique your interest, then step inside this cabinet of curiosities and prepare to be swept into a world that might just make you happy to be alive.
Museum displays the head of a French serial killer
Original gallery was housed in a former mortuary
Owners frequently write to famous serial killers
Part of the collection was acquired from police auctions
In the early history of museums, collections didn't always have a unifying theme. P.T. Barnum's American Museum in the 1840s-1860s had a conglomeration of attractions, including live animals–both terrestrial and aquatic–a grand theater, conjoined twins, a dwarf, and more conventional museum exhibits such as paintings, memorabilia, and taxidermy.
There were also artifacts of dubious origins, such as a tree trunk Jesus' disciples allegedly sat under, and of course, the Fiji Mermaid. In essence, all the collection had to do was get people's attention.
By and large, Barnum's American Museum housed living spectacles that would shock and awe his audience. But such museums weren't without controversy then and they aren't without controversy today.
And when murder and death become central to the museum spectacle, the contention rages like the flames of a circus ring.
You can say that James D. Healy and his wife Cathy Shultz are among the modern P.T. Barnums who help make museums centers of
It all began in 1991 when J.D. Healy was running the Rita Dean Gallery in the Gaslight District of San Diego. The gallery stood on 6th Avenue, housed in a building that was once a mortuary and it was supposedly owned by Wyatt Earp during his stay in San Diego between 1885 and 1896.
There were also rumors that the place was haunted, of course, and it undoubtedly made for a sensational addition to Healy's gallery.
And if nothing else, The Rita Dean Gallery was bubbling over with sensationalism. Live birds, animal bones, and images of serial killers were among the tamer exhibits.
Healy delighted in the shock images of sex and serial killers brought from spectators. Even police got involved when a large image of a naked woman was placed in the front window of the gallery, but nothing ever came of it.
When police tried to interfere, Healy would flippantly say he'd talk to his manager, Rita Dean–who never actually existed.
But the reception from the wider public wasn't all disgust and shock. In 1992, the gallery launched its art exhibition
Cereal Killers - the Art of Corporate Lebensraum--a German term which denotes colonial expansion.
The exhibit was a wall of serial killer pictures framed by dizzying
psycho swirls near a collection of cereal boxes. On another wall, a set of the same swirls held mirrors at the center for viewers to see their reflections in the same manner as Ted Bundy, Gacy, and other presumed killers.
The conspiratorial show aimed to reveal that corporations have a desire to expand into and occupy the human mind, with even violent behavior being attributable to the diabolical force.
Excessive? Maybe. But the exhibition's dramatic flair earned positive reviews from regular visitors and the press.
Healy and Shultz soon wanted to carry on doing what they did best without being bothered by police and critics. So they enlisted the help of the ACLU to help protect their right to display risque or graphic images.
They found that if they changed their status from
museum no one was gonna cramp their style. So, in 1995, the Rita Dean Gallery was rebranded as the Museum of Death.
The museum's collection expanded, but kept the spirit of the Rita Dean Gallery. In fact, the owners said that changing the name was mostly for show, but that little else would change.
In 1999, they got an opportunity to change locales after they had a lease disagreement with the owner of the building. They packed their bags and murderabilia and went to (where else?) Hollywood.
With this growing success, they expanded to New Orleans in 2014 to accommodate their ever-expanding collection of the macabre.
A Fascinating or Exploitive Collection?
The museum's grotesque collection includes rotted hands, baby caskets with images of deceased babies nearby, as well as a cross-section slice of a human head.
And speaking of heads: among the disturbing murderabilia is the head of Henri Desire Landru, the so-called
Bluebeard of France who was sentenced to die by guillotine in 1922 following the murder of ten women and one boy.
Based on the folktale about a wealthy man who murdered his wives, Landru earned the moniker by scouring lonely hearts ads in the paper and preying on rich Parisian widows.
Healy said a neurologist in Malibu owned the head, but the man's wife didn't like seeing it around the house (perhaps it didn't go with the decor), so the good doctor decided to unload it on Healy and Shultz. The rest is history.
From bearing the name
museum they unexpectedly got donations of all kinds, especially coffins.
Everyone gives you a coffin, Shultz once said. And they also once had human hands show up on their doorstep as presents.
Even after they built a collection of electric chairs and funerary objects, they never lost their obsession with serial killers.
It went beyond just true crime research for the dark duo. They became pen pals with serial killers like Lawrence Bittaker (who killed five women in LA) and John Wayne Gacy, a man responsible for the deaths of 33 men and boys.
Gacy even made a phone call to Healy and sold his artwork to the museum, including the famous Pogo the Clown portraits, which showcase his alternate identity as a performer for children's events.
Bittaker also found a platform for his creativity when the museum displayed his handmade pop-up birthday cards.
Of course, Charles Manson has a substantial display (some would say a shrine) at both the New Orleans and LA locations, and the infamous cult leader was aware of this since Healy frequently wrote to him.
Aside from serial killers as a source for the collection, the pair get some of their objects from police auctions, where unclaimed jewelry, apparel, and other items can be bought online or in person.
But while some visitors consider the exhibits to be gratuitous in their depictions of mutilated victims and serial killer artwork, some find it educational.
In addition to the graphic images, the displays include transcripts from interrogations and psychological reports.
One forensic science student told The Sacramento Bee that she visited the museum in San Diego to learn more about criminal psychology.
She told the paper,
this helps us take a look into their minds and be more aware of what kinds of psychopaths are out there.
There's no denying that if you spend the time analyzing Gacy's bizarre clown motifs or the reports on Ed Gein, you'll gain some insights into disturbed minds.
Notably, the Heaven's Gate exhibit draws one in with audio clips and footage of the notorious cult headed by Marshall Appelwhite.
The mass suicide of 39 people led to the phrase
drink the kool-aid in pop culture and the event's notoriety is partly because people wonder what was in the minds of its leader and followers.
The Museum of Death is a place to mull that over, and the closer you get to crime and the victims, the more you wonder if their minds were really different from your own.
So when we try to answer the question, is the museum educational or exploitive? the answer probably lies somewhere in between. But that's for the visitor to decide.
Death: We've All Gotta Do It
It's often said that the museum is not for the faint of heart–and this is not merely said to spook or attract attention.
Healy likes to remind his more squeamish guests that death is something we all have to do. Might as well get used to it, right?
He's no hypocrite since both he and his wife have gotten quite used to death.
This was evident when Cathee Shultz told the story of a knifing that took place on Hollywood Boulevard one night. The couple jumped into action and managed to get pictures of the crime scene and even collect brain tissue left behind after police cleared the area.
. . . That certainly takes collection acquisition to a whole new level.
For many visitors, the grisly exhibits and the desensitized curators might be too much to handle, as a fine line is walked between edgy and unethical.
But the museum claims to have a noble objective: to make people confront death and ultimately feel grateful to be alive.
Whether you leave feeling deeply disturbed, enlightened, incensed, or some combination of the three, you certainly feel life teem around you when you step outside the museum: The cars race, people and their chatter breeze by, and the next destination on your list reminds you that your journey will keep on trucking.