A dark tourism case study: The Museum of Torture, San Giminiano

The big questions are ‘why?’ Why is this museum of horrors here, in this most gorgeous of places? Why did I, on this most romantic occasion (we are celebrating a significant-to-us anniversary) decide to visit a Museum of Torture?

Beautiful romantic medieval San Giminiano

The second answer is because as I said at the end of my last post, I am both/and. Both a visitor and a visiting interpretation professional.  I am professionally interested in  dark tourism – a growing area of study and activity- see herehere and here. The University of Central Lancashire has an Institute of Dark Tourism that researches into visitation to sites of  ‘death, disaster and the seemingly macabre’.  I have had many detailed discussions on aspects of dark tourism, particularly those concerned with bereavement, grief and remembrance, with my highly thoughtful clients at the National Memorial Arboretum (see previous post).

I believe it is very important to be able to tell the darkest stories of our past and to do so fairly, with integrity, compassion and courage, honouring victims and recognising both heroism and evil. I do not underestimate any of these challenges, especially within a leisure visit, tourism  context. So I went though these doors.

The Museum of Torture, San Giminiano , Italy

I was afraid. I didn’t want it to be an entertainment of the ghost train variety, but knew that I would find any serious treatment of the history of torture almost unbearable. I asked the nice girl at the desk if it was ‘very horrible’ she said ‘only because it shows us how horrible man can be to his fellow men’. Fair enough. ‘Is it serious or oooooohhhh?’ I asked (with hand and face action depicting ghosts, accompanying the ‘ooooohhhh’). She reassured me that it was serious.  It was.

Two titles for the same attraction creates a mixed message

There was no clear introduction and no clear message so I was not told why this museum exists. What I found was an extraordinary collection of artefacts related to torture, mainly, but not solely, from medieval Europe.  Each was accompanied by a long, extremely detailed, graphic, agonising account of how this piece of equipment was used and its impact on the human body.  This included clear accounts of how long people can stay conscious and very focused descriptions of degrees of agony.  I am not going to put any images or quotations of that type here. I can’t.  Just imagine the worst you can, and then you may be two thirds of the way to the horror of it. Quite often it felt voyeuristic, sometimes nearer to pornographic.  The person behind all this certainly knew his or her way around the torture chamber, had spent a lot of time contemplating it.

The museum texts were mostly presented in 5 European languages (English (which I am sure was the first language most of the time) Italian, German, Spanish and French).  From my long experience of studying texts I would guess that they were written by the person who amassed the collection. He or she, I think, wanted us to know how extreme torture is and how prevalent in human experience across time and space.  Besides the European material that was the core of the displays there was also a special exhibition on Oriental torture methods …

… and a display of the apparatus used to administer the death penalty in 20th  century USA. The text writer explained this:

“Notwithstanding the horror that each execution aroused .. the electric chair did not find many adversaries in the United States and became the most popular method of execution. It came to be considered as a fundemental instrument of ‘industrial progress’ even if in reality it is only an ancient torturing machine made perfect by the achievements of a modern civilisation.’

Elsewhere, the texts made other contemporary refereences.

‘ … modern torturefor the most part requires methods that leave no marks on the victim for obvious reasons of propoganda.’

“AN INTERROGATION CHAIR: this is an important basic to the art of the inquisitor. Today updated versions are used, improved by electricity.”

This place got to me. I found myself wanting to lash out – at the curator, at the museum trustees, even at the other visitors. ‘Why are you here?’ I thought ‘you must be really nasty people’. But then of course I realised I was there too.  I felt like a nasty person.

San Giminiano was packed with people.  This museum was almost empty.  Myself, a family of Americans (parents and two adult children), two young men who came and went very quickly. Somewhere, I heard a child crying – but lots of museums can do that!

The big question is Why? why is the museum here? It took me a long time, too long, to see it but on after much reflection, I can. This is a medieval hilltown where it is easy to get lost in a romantic hazy version of medieval life.  But there was a dark side – set out clearly in the extraordinary vision of hell in the Duomo.

These visions reflect the imagination of man and the knowledge of our physical fraility.

The same imagination and knowledge lay behind the machines and mechanisms I saw in the Museum of Torture. This is an appropriate juxtaposition after all.

But there is nonetheless a significant problem. The messages of the museum are not clear. I am a kind visitor, a professional reader of museums and their language. I now believe there is a probably a serious and maybe humane purpose behind the display of this  collection. If I am right and this is more than a treat for ghouls, it needs to be much more explicit.  As with many attractions, a little work on interpretation of the big messages and purpose would make a huge difference to the visitor. If reflected in the promotional materials, it could make a huge difference to the number of visitors.

These things always matter in heritage attractions.  When those attractions deal with the darkest aspects of our nature, high quality well-planned interpretation is even more necessary. It seems an ethical imperative not only to present the dark site but also to equip visitors to find a path through it that does not involve self-loathing.

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About susancrosstelltale

Great visits to heritage and natural sites do not happen by accident. This blog is about the work that make special sites great places to visit. I hope it will be useful to visitors and host alike. Find out more at me and my blog.
This entry was posted in Attractions, Good places to visit, Heritage attractions, Interpretation, Museums, Tourism, Visit experience, Visitors, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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