Column: Museums

by John Marr

All I Got Was This Lousy Guillotine
San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf is the consummate tourist ghetto. Its heavily littered streets are lined with chain hotels and cheap gift shops selling “San Francisco” emblazoned trash; its sidewalks clogged with crowds of tourists looking for an authentic San Francisco experience and finding only “Alcatraz Swim Team” T-shirts.

Hidden in the midst of the massive tourist trap, for all too few years, was my favorite San Francisco attraction: The Medieval Dungeon Museum, or as anyone with taste called it, The Torture Museum. It appeared at the site formerly occupied by something called “The Haunted Gold Mine” in the mid 1980s, and vanished without a trace sometime after the turn of the century. During those years, no out-of-town guest graced my couch without taking the tour, and more than one prospective girlfriend was vetted in its dark confines.

The concept of the Torture Museum was very simple: Take a wax museum, dump all the Richard Nixon and Michael Jackson dummies, replace them with an expanded Chamber of Horrors, and watch the tourist dollars roll in.

Ostensibly, the Torture Museum was an educational display of authentic medieval torture implements. But the entrance display, a robed woman repeatedly dunking a waxen head in a bubbling cauldron as she cackles insanely, left little doubt that education was not a major institutional priority. Inside, visitors were treated to “more than 40 barbaric exhibits of torture and annihilation,” while a soundtrack of thundering Wagnerian music mixed in with ominous Gregorian chants and sporadic shrieks, played in the background. Subtlety was not their strong point, nor their aim.

The display that epitomized the Torture Museum was the body saw exhibit. In a more serious institution this would have consisted of a saw in a display case with a plaque soberly describing its provenance, with an explanation of how it was used to saw people in half. But here, the display consisted of two hooded monkish figures, sawing a naked woman in half…lengthwise. The designers did not spare the waxen gore.

The saw room was the pinnacle display for the museum, and while the rest may not have reached equal esteem, it was not for lack of trying. On display: a figure gurgling helplessly as endless gallons of water were poured down his throat; a terror-stricken man awaiting his fate in the Iron Maiden; demonstrations of chastity belts, scold’s bridles, and pillories in action. Capitol punishment was certainly not neglected—visitors were treated to a full array of lethal devices ranging from the guillotine to the gallows. And though not a permanent display, but quite a sight, a Midwestern-size mother literally dragging her horrified young daughter through the museum, saying, “You said you wanted to see this so you’re gonna see it!”

Age only added to the museum’s tacky charms, with a few displays that featured simple movements that would begin to malfunction, giving the fearsome torturers the appearance of suffering from palsy. And the gradually thickening layer of dust that covered torturer, victim, and apparatus alike only added to the incongruity of a museum dedicated to inhumanity, wedged in between T-shirt stands.

The Torture Museum died an unnoticed death sometime in the early 2000s. It only lives on in the fading memories of its few fans (including one now-grown Midwestern girl) and some fragmentary video footage on the Internet. For the crowning irony was that the Torture Museum was the only business on Fisherman’s Wharf that did not sell souvenirs. Not even a lousy T-shirt.