Sunday, June 15, 2014

Limited Exhibition: San Diego Museum of Man's Instruments of Torture

I'm reminded of this exhibit because I've been spending a lot of time listening to Alexander von Meilenwald's project the Ruins of Beverast, specifically his album "Blood Vaults: The Blazing Gospel of Heinrich Kramer". The entire piece is a concept based around Kramer's contributions to the Malleus Maleficarum (loosely translated to the Hammer of [the] Witches) which was the Catholic church's 1487 treatise on detecting, interrogating, and ultimately torturing witches. A book that itself conceived of several methods of torture and alone blights a large portion of Catholic history.

But I digress, as this write-up isn't about Meilenwald's excellent album at all, but rather the "Instruments of Torture" display currently on exhibition at San Diego's Museum of Man which my wife and I visited this past March. The draw of course being a huge display of more implements of torture than most people might initially fathom, but that becomes secondary once walking the length of the display and reading the histories of each device and method currently in the museum.

Of course, most of the implements all share their roots of initially being circulated into use centuries ago, some predating the Dark Ages, going back as far as the Bronze Age. Every device itself is terrible and gruesome, a sadistic representation of humanity's boundless creativity when it comes to invention and cruelty. Of course, to display every known device of torture would make for a HUGE exhibit, but there is a plethora there, from items we are exceptionally familiar with either through movies, history books, or happenstance to items that are more obscure in nature that lack the prevalence of the Iron Maiden or guillotine.

It didn't take long, however, for the display to bridge the gap between fascination and repulsion. Which I suppose is the entire point. While a huge majority of the implements seen in the Museum of Man's exhibit have expectedly fallen out of use, there are still a disturbing few that are still implemented in countries around the world. Strappado, for instance, which is more of a method than a device really requiring only rope. Water torture, flagellation, the Tiger Bench, and German Chair (conceived by the Stasi in which the victim is pulled backwards while seated until flesh and sinew tear and spine snaps) are all still widely in use in countries around the world. While it's disheartening to consider the great achievements of humanity contrasted against the unfathomable cruelty which we're capable of inflicting upon each other, it does propagate conversation at the very least.

It's a dialog that I think is absolutely necessary during our current age. Enlightened as some of us may be, as a species we are not infallible. We have a long history of attacking each other, oppression, unnecessary castigation, torment, debauchery, and debasement that can't historically be ignored. To deny that would be to sweep instances such as Abu Ghraib under the rug. It would be denying the countless human rights violations in the Sudan, Burma, or Chinese mainland. It would be taking away the voices of the millions of people that have been victims of modern torture, not to mention belittle the tortures wrought historically upon the innocents of bygone eras.

In regard to the presentation of the display itself, it is immaculately conceived. For each prominent piece in the exhibit there are 3-5 less familiar contraptions adjacent. And for every item it details, an extremely thorough history is also given. From minor medieval punishments for gambling and profanity to misconceptions about items like the chastity belt or Judas Cradle or death by sawing, which is as horrible as it sounds. Even more interesting is the idea that most tortures were not designed as elaborate death sentences, but rather a continuous means of punishment. Many, in fact by their very design, are meant to stave death while still visiting anguish upon the victim.

I would absolutely recommend you see this exhibit if you find yourself in the San Diego area, but bear in mind that it's not a fun display. While there are plenty of curiosities the majority of the exhibit has been put together expressly to encourage political and ideological discourse and conversation. If it causes repulsion or horror it's doing exactly what the curators have intended. It is an unflinching look at the pompous cruelty that humans are capable of inflicting and saying "Look, this is something we can fix, but we need to admit it's still a problem first". If you go and find yourself overwhelmed after, then make sure to go across the way to the main building for the BEERology display. It is a lot more fun. Alone, Instruments of Torture is a grim reminder of mankind's torrid obsession with pain and death.

photos from

1 comment:

Rusty said...

Cool exhibit, good opportunity to view this while you were down there. I find it actually disgusting, but I think this knowledge can lead people to being more compassionate, let me explain.

I've always been kind of fascinated with gory movies; slasher films are the only horror movie genre I really am interested in. The gruesome acts of violence in those are always the act of some deranged lunatic who preys on the innocent. Until someone is strong enough to stand up and put a stop to it at least! The same instincts my cat has when attacking the neon colored toy mice are probably the same instincts in me that kick in when I watch such inhuman acts but actually find them entertaining!

There is always that detachment from reality though. I bet to see these devices in person is unset-tingly surreal, knowing that a real human could be the monster and how fairly recently in history these were used as tools of pure terror against people just like us, to supress thoughts or ideas. Unlike the movies, these were used against the ones who dared to be bold and stand up, to set a reminder for the rest of us. There were so few heroes, many villains.

This knowledge and exhibit could be a powerful tool to remind us of our own twisted nature that lies dormant that I hope we never reawaken. In some parts of the world these things are alive and well. I think knowing what we are capable of and striving to make things better can help us act more humanely.