Macabre Collections: Europe’s Strangest Museums

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

All museums are filled with extraordinary things: the remnants of ancient civilisations, the bones of now-extinct beasts, captivating portraits and beautiful sculpture by society’s most celebrated artists. They are there to remind us of our past as a species, to teach us, inspire us, and to sate our curiosity. And while all museums can claim to do this in one way or another (yes, even the British Lawnmower Museum…), these museums are a little bit different. They show to us humanity’s wicked side, they unfurl curious tales of lost love and broken relationships, and they delight and equally spook us with cabinets filled with some of the world’s most unusual, most beguiling, mesmerisingly macabre collections.

The Paris Medical Museum, Paris

Located inside an atmospheric wood-panelled room on the second floor of the Descartes University on a leafy street in the 6th arrondissement, the Paris Medical Museum is filled with intriguing curios from the world of medicine and experimentation. The large room is framed by two elegant mezzanines and is full of glass display cases containing more than 1500 pieces. Highlights include medical bags found on the fields of Waterloo, a doctor’s case that was used for the autopsy of Napoleon on St Helena, medical mannequins, ancient medical devices and fascinating photography documenting early experimentations with physiognomy. But amongst the oddest and most macabre of all its relics is a table made by Efisio Marini that is formed by a surprisingly colourful mosaic of petrified brains, blood, lungs and glands. And atop the already very bizarre and yet oddly ornate table rests a decoration of four ears, a circle of vertebrae and a preserved foot finished with an engraved silver cap. 

Museum of Broken Relationships, Zagreb

This fascinating museum, opened by two Croatian artists, satisfies our innate nature to spy on other peoples lives. It is a voyeurs dream come true. Inside there is a mishmash of seemingly nonsensical and unconnected objects spanning everything from teddy bears, shoes, a toaster and postcards to mixtapes, keys, gowns, underwear and even a prosthetic leg. But get a little closer and each object is brought to life with a heartfelt note from the donor detailing the significance of the object and its relevance to their broken relationship. The stories are often heartbreaking, humorous and sometimes devastating but the beauty of the museum lies in its ability to inspire a certain kind of empathy in almost all who visit. The space is surprisingly large and modern and everything is exhibited in large open plan gallery-style rooms snuggled within the gorgeous baroque Kulmer Palace, in the historic Upper Town of Zagreb.

The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, London

Hidden below the fabulous Last Tuesday Society absinthe bar, the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities offers a fascinating homage to all that is eccentric, unique and darkly beautiful, all stuffed into a dimly lit basement in Hackney. The little space has the scent of an old forgotten library and is crammed with the most incredible objects. From masquerade masks and taxidermied animals sat around a spell table from the Gnostic Temple of Agape, to vintage erotica, human body parts, various plastic ephemera, ethnographica and shrunken heads. Everything here is mysterious and dark but the museum’s personality, much like its owners, is effervescent and profoundly witty. Intriguingly, travellers with a love of the bizarre can join Viktor Wynd, the reclusive curator and owner of the museum, on various journeys and collecting expeditions across west Africa, as well on guided tours of the subterranean museum. We suggest finishing with a cocktail or a glass of absinthe in the bar upstairs where the museum overflows with yet more oddities and magnificent curiosities — from wall mounted animal heads and a small library of books to the ornate absinthe fountains that sit atop the bar and tables.

The Museum of Torture, Siena

Accessed by a small door in a backstreet in the old town of Siena, this strange little museum feels a lot like a dungeon. With atmospheric low lighting, old stone walls and the lingering scent of ancient iron mingling with damp stone, leather and well-worn wood. The exhibits are spread across a collection of rooms and corridors, with low arched ceilings made of brick, terracotta tiled floors, skulls adorning the ceiling in the entrance and deep red finishings used to accentuate the exhibits. But where other museums may attempt to use the relics of torture displayed here as props with human players, the Museum of Torture lays the various devices bare, in their full unadulterated horror for museum-goers to touch (sometimes) and investigate. The aged and worn Iron Maiden and the stretching rack are notorious, but the inscriptions and historic illustrations do a good job of explaining the uses of the other, lesser-known, but no less terrible instruments on display. 

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