General Non-Fiction posted June 11, 2024

This work has reached the exceptional level
Confronting, and maybe transformational

Know your enemy

by Wendy G

It’s not for the squeamish nor for the faint of heart. You probably would never forget it if you went there and you probably would not want to go a second time. It’s not a place for a date. It’s not for young children.

Where is this place? It’s a quirky and very confronting museum in Sydney, Australia, and in 2013 it ranked in the top ten of weird museums in the world. Perhaps there are more weird ones now, and this one may have lost its questionable ranking.

The museum, recently reopened after a brief hiatus during Covid, has added a virtual museum to the static displays; interested people can visit between 10 am and 4 pm on weekdays.

It’s the Museum of Human Disease, and the stated aim is that people are so grossed out by the exhibits that they choose to start looking after their bodies better! It’s a noble goal; it is probably very effective for the brave souls who venture within the walls of this museum. 

The museum began as a teaching space about diseases for medical students and holds a medical pathology collection, with more than 2500 exhibits of diseased human tissue in “pots”, preserved in formalin, among other displays. Visitors can examine this human tissue, and also diseased organs, some from bodies donated to medical research, others removed by surgeries, yet others from autopsies.

What else are you interested in? Parasites? You can be ushered to the tapeworm and roundworm collection. Would you like to see the blackened lungs of coal-miners? What about a benign teratoma of an ovary which has teeth and hair growing from it?

The museum director notes that “there is great suffering in every single jar.”  Some of the jars are sixty or seventy years old, and it's hoped that the contents are irreplaceable. Why? Because the diseases are managed, and hopefully extinct, never to recur – diseases such as diphtheria and typhoid. 

The windpipe of one child who had diphtheria – a nine-year-old boy who died from the disease in 1960 – is on display in the museum. "All of our displays are sombre, but some, like this one, are extra painful,’ says the museum’s director. ‘They tell important stories for us to learn from – stories that we might have forgotten as diseases like this have become less visible. If people don’t vaccinate or maintain vaccinations, deadly diseases like this one might re-emerge – and we could see more preventable deaths like this poor boy’s."

The director of the museum is very enthusiastic about the importance of his museum, stating that people need to understand the grotesque reality of their choices – decisions about their lifestyle do have consequences, even if they are not noticed for quite some time. He says that a visit here can be quite transformational – compelling people to be motivated to improve their lifestyle choices.

"The emphysema display in particular has impacted a lot of people," he says. "We’ve had people visit the museum as smokers and leave as non-smokers. They’ve contacted us – months later – to say that the display stuck with them.

This is the power of objects. Seeing the real thing can help bring home the anti-smoking messages they’ve seen elsewhere."

Every display has a real-life story accompanying it, along with clinical notes of explanation.

There are other diseases to check out, including tuberculosis and AIDS which are still present, as well as many others we bring upon ourselves.

These include the usual and predictable baddies, with exhibits providing significant evidence about the effects of smoking, as mentioned, as well as obesity, alcohol, drugs and mental health. You’ll see the results of cancer, strokes, diabetes, heart attacks, and genetic diseases. None of it is pretty!

If you are fascinated by the history and science of more than two hundred deadly diseases, you will appreciate the displays and exhibits – but be aware that there’ll be a limited number of friends who want to chat with you about the gory things you have seen. It’s a personal challenge, rather than something for small talk.

They say that the best way to prepare for the future is to know one’s enemy, and it is here that one can become acquainted with all one’s enemies – IF you have a penchant for the macabre and the truly gross.

It’s not called “Australia’s Most Disturbing Museum” without good reason!

Story of the Month contest entry



Club entry for the "Weirdest Museum" event in "Flash Fiction/Nonfiction".  Locate a writing club.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

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