death

Bristol: death: the human experience @ Bristol Museum + Bonus Taxidermy

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A brief, but only mildly irritated rant, because I feel some explanation is needed: I know you can’t tell, because the title text on my blog shows up in all capitals, but the name of this exhibit is written in all lower case letters, both on the museum’s website, and at the exhibition itself (and you’ll probably notice that I reluctantly follow their model when I talk about it later in this paragraph, hence the need for an explanation).  I don’t know if they’re playing around with being e e cummings or what, but c’mon now, things are capitalised for a reason.  I’d sooner go back to the rather charming Georgian (Germanic?) habit of capitalising most nouns than lose it altogether.  That aside, death: the human experience was my main motivation for going down to Bristol in the first place, because I am a morbid individual who’s into shit like that.  Although I did take my time in getting down there, in hopes of slightly warmer weather, the exhibit ended on the 13th of March (sorry for not getting this post up while it was still on), so there came a point when I couldn’t wait any longer, and we just had to be cool with driving through sleet.

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The neat thing about the exhibit is that it was operating under a pay what you can afford/what you think it’s worth system, which was convenient as I can currently afford very little, and tend to think most exhibits are way overpriced.  The Bristol Museum itself is free anyway, so although we did choose to donate something, it wasn’t strictly necessary (if you weren’t bothered about supporting the museum), as the donation box was in a fairly low-pressure environment (there was a staff member standing nearby, but she wasn’t right on top of you, and didn’t seem to be paying much attention to whether people were donating or not).  I actually really liked the opening section of this exhibit, which was a long, dimly lit gallery filled with objects that make people think of death, like skeletons and vultures.  I liked it less when a shitload of students piled in the door right after we arrived and were breathing down my neck, but fortunately the woman working there saw my obvious irritation (I did sigh loudly and make a comment about all the young people.  I’m kind of a jerk) and instructed half of them to go around the exhibit in the opposite direction, which greatly eased traffic and earned my gratitude.

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However, the rest of the exhibit wasn’t really anything remarkable.  It consisted of about five other small galleries, each dealing with a different aspect of death, from different cultural funerary practices, to death throughout history, and the various ways people die.  I reckon if I hadn’t seen SMRT in Prague, and the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston last year, I might have been more impressed with Bristol’s effort, but it did pale in comparison.  For example, they had one of the Ghanaian fantasy coffins in the Bristol Museum, which was cool, but there was a whole room full of them in Houston.  And the National Museum in Prague devoted a whole large gallery to ancient burial practices, whereas here there was only room for one small case.  I’m not knocking it; they did the best they could with the space they had available, it was just on a much smaller scale than the other museums.

Which is not to say I didn’t learn anything or enjoy myself – I thought the description of the objects that members of the museum staff buried their relatives with was very sweet (someone buried their grandfather with mint imperials, because he always had a bag to hand, which reminded me of my grandma, who we buried with a pack of Dentyne gum, as she was constantly chewing it (oddly, although Dentyne is not sugar-free, she kept almost all of her teeth, so maybe there’s something to be said for it?)).  For some reason, learning that people in the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland are given a piece of chocolate to take the bitter taste of the poison out of their mouths depressed me more than anything else in the museum.  Not that there’s anything depressing about Swiss chocolate (though I do prefer Belgian), I think it just made me picture the process of assisted suicide too vividly.  I also liked that there was a sort of “decompression” room at the end that was full of pamphlets about death, including one to help you plan your funeral arrangements.  I suppose I’m not at an age where most people start to worry about these things, but I’ve always felt hyper-conscious of my own mortality, and I definitely think death shouldn’t be a taboo subject, so I’m glad that the museum was encouraging people to talk about these things.  I liked their message, and the content, I just wish there could have been more of it, but like I said, I might just be spoiled by visiting a lot of exhibits of this nature.  3/5 for death: the human experience.

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But, since I don’t know when I’ll be back in Bristol, I might as well talk about the rest of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.  Typical of the museums in many smaller cities, where there’s not dedicated ones for art and natural history and all that jazz, the Bristol Museum was kind of a mishmash that included local history, an art gallery, the Ancient Egyptians, and a good bit of natural history in the form of taxidermy.  If anyone remembers the Irish Natural History Museum from way back at the start of my blog, when I wasn’t yet in the habit of including many pictures, you will know how much I love derpy taxidermy.  (I mean, I definitely talk about how much I love taxidermy in many other posts too, but that was probably the first time.)  This wasn’t quite on the level on the National Museum of Ireland, which is like a Victorian wonderland of bad taxidermy, but there were still some prime specimens here.

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The museum’s mascot appears to be a gorilla called Alfred who lived in the Bristol Zoo during the Second World War, and apparently hated men with beards, among a number of other things.  Well, the poor thing got stuffed after he died, and ended up here, with beardy men staring at him all day long (my boyfriend included).

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The aye-aye was probably my personal favourite, just because I reckon it’s the closest you can get to a Sumatran Rat Monkey in real life (warning, that rat monkey link is fairly gory, in a claymation kind of way, but aren’t Lionel and Paquita adorable together?  I love Braindead.  It’s gotta be in my top five favourite movies), but I am also partial to that handsome bird with the pompadour hairdo.  I am probably fonder of taxidermy than a vegetarian has any right to be, but I comfort myself with the fact that most of the stuff in museums has been sitting around for a while, so it’s not like these animals were killed recently or anything.

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I love dried bats, because they pretty much just turn into adorable little balls of fluff with papery wings, but the award for derpiest animal has to go to that otter.  Or possibly the fox, though his natural regal fox-bearing probably saves him from looking quite as dim as the otter.  Ok, I should probably stop talking about the taxidermy now, I just love it so damn much.

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The rest of the museum really wasn’t much to speak of: a bit of modern art, a decent Egyptian section, a Banksy near the entrance, and a handsome mustachioed aviator hovering over it all, but I feel I do need to mention the toilets, just to see if anyone else thinks this is as weird as I do.  I’m guessing the toilets were still semi-Victorian in nature; if not the actual fixtures, then certainly the stalls themselves.  The bottom half of the stalls were wood, no problems there, but the top halves had glass panels in them. Between the stalls.  Not frosted glass, mind, just normal, sort of patterned glass, that meant you couldn’t see through them super clearly, but could nonetheless get a pretty good view of the person in the stall next to you’s face, at a time when you really don’t want to be making eye contact with a stranger.  The panels were probably a bit above waist level when you were standing, which meant you could just see from head level when seated on the loo, but even that is weird (I mean, I know men just pee out in the open, but they’re used to it).  I definitely did a double take when I walked in and realised I could see the people next to me going about their business (and they could see me doing mine), but I really had to pee, so I rolled with it.  It still weirds me out though.  I don’t care if they’re Victorian or not, you could at least replace the glass with more wood or something.  All this is to say that using the toilets here may not be ideal if you’re shy about these things.  So to recap, fairly normal, albeit slightly generic museum, very strange toilets.  2.5/5.

 

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Houston, TX: The National Museum of Funeral History

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It seems like late summer/early fall is always such a travel whirlwind for me (and the blog).  First Italy, and now the US, specifically, Houston (which I’m always tempted to mispronounce Hoos-ton in Matthew Kelly style, since I’ve watched far too many old-ass episodes of Stars in Their Eyes).  My boyfriend had to travel there for work, and as soon as I found out, my first thoughts were of the National Museum of Funeral History, which, as readers of my Places I’d Like to Visit page will know, I’ve wanted to go to pretty much forever.  Fortunately, my boyfriend agreed that it and many other things in Texas were worth seeing, so we arranged to meet there for a few days after he was done with work stuff, before flying up to Cleveland for a bit to see my family ‘n’ junk.  The Funeral Museum was my top (only?) priority in Houston, so that’s where we headed my first morning there.  Which is convenient, because in lieu of anything spookier, it’ll have to serve as my Halloween post this year.

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The museum was not that easy to find, being located in a nondescript building on the outskirts of town, but I’m happy to say that it was both massive and deserted when we got there.  Admission is $10, which seems kind of steep until you see the size of this place.  The main gallery is dominated by a splendid collection of hearses, including some that pre-date the automobile.  Numerous other smaller galleries split off from there, focusing on funerals of celebrities, the popes, and the presidents, among others.

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Even though I was dying (pun intended) to see the presidential gallery, I thought I’d restrain myself and save that for last, so I started in the opposite corner of the museum with celebrity funerals.  There was a large display about the Wizard of Oz, primarily about the recently deceased actors who portrayed various Munchkins, with a replica of the Coroner’s outfit, as well as an old video of the actor who played him explaining why he was given the role (he could competently deliver a few lines, basically, having had some experience in show business.  He had previously worked for Oscar Mayer, travelling around the country in the Wienermobile as the “World’s Smallest Chef,” which is a story in its own right).  There was also a Walt Disney corner, but most of the space in this gallery was devoted to some guy’s collection of funeral memorial booklets.  You know, those little pamphlets they give out at a memorial service, usually with a picture of the deceased on the front and some information about their life inside (actually, I’ve never been to a funeral where those were handed out, since Catholics tend to favour those little prayer cards, but I’ve seen them before).

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These were worth remarking on mainly because many of them belonged to people who I thought were kind of cool, such as Jack LaLanne and Al Lewis.  There was also a quiz on the epitaphs of various famous people, which I should have known since they were also actors I liked, including Leslie Nielsen and Walter Matthau, but I did not excel at it.  (I also love Jack Lemmon and Burgess Meredith, primarily from Grumpy Old Men, but I can’t watch the sequel without crying when Burgess Meredith dies.  I also get weepy at that one Twilight Zone, because all the poor guy wanted to do was be left alone to read.  I can sympathise.)

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We accidentally went through the funeral history section backwards, getting to the Egyptians last, but that didn’t matter, because I was most interested in all the Victorian mourning paraphernalia anyway.  I’m already very well acquainted with hair art and mourning jewellery, but the mourning clock was a new one.  I actually think it’s a lovely idea, though obviously I don’t want any of my friends or family to die anytime soon, so perhaps acquiring an antique one would be best (or I could have one made in honour of my grandparents maybe?).  I am definitely goth enough to hang something like that in my house (it helps that the picture on the one on display was Edward Gorey-esque).

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The Egyptian stuff was fine; they had a very blinged-out sarcophagus (I’m a pretty good speller, but I always have to try that one a few times before I get it right), but it was mostly just laminated print-outs hanging from the walls, and not quite up to the standard of the other galleries.

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Especially the Papal Funerals.  Oh my gott.  This was much much larger than I was expecting; every time we thought we were done, we turned a corner and it kept going.  I am, as I’ve mentioned before, an EXTREMELY lapsed Catholic (lapsed all the way into atheism), so I can’t pretend I’ve any particular interest in the popes or their funerals (other than the fun of saying Papa Francesco with an Italian accent), but I was surprised by how much I learned in here.

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From what the colours of the hats mean about the various ranks of clergy, to what happens to the pope’s ring after he dies, and how the whole red shoe thing got started, it was unexpectedly fascinating stuff.  Did you know the pope is buried in not one, not two, but THREE coffins?!  It’s like they’re scared he’s going to turn into a vampire and escape or something.

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My boyfriend was probably most keen on the Ghanaian coffins, which were kept in a slightly hidden-away room about funeral customs world-wide.  Basically, some guy in Ghana started making coffins in shapes that reflected either the dead person’s personality, or something the dead person loved when they were alive, and it caught on and became a whole craze for anyone who could afford one.  On an episode of An Idiot Abroad, Karl Pilkington had a giant Twix made, which we both agreed is the best one we’ve seen (it helps that Twix is probably the best candy bar, tied with Snickers), but the ones here were pretty good too, especially the big ol’ crab (let’s face it, if it’s meant to represent one’s personality, that’s probably what I should be buried in).  There was also some stuff about Japanese and Mexican funerals.

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It’s time to talk about some of the displays in the main gallery; the coolest thing (in my opinion) being a funeral bus (above right).  It was built in 1916, and meant to be a solution to the problem of extended funeral processions tying up roads, since it could hold the coffin, up to twenty mourners, and the pallbearers.  Unfortunately, when they tried it out, it proved to be unbalanced, and flipped; the coffin opened up, the mourners all fell out, and the whole thing was a bit of a disaster, so it was never used again. But apparently some guy lived in it for a while; if you have to live in a bus, I think a funeral bus is probably the way to go.

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Other noteworthy objects included a 1921 hearse with beautiful wood carvings made to resemble drapes on the side, hearses used to carry the bodies of Grace Kelly and Ronald Reagan, and a money casket, with slots on the side to donate coins (I guess in theory to help pay for funeral costs, although it’s just used for fundraising events, and not to actually hold bodies).  Personally, I’m a fan of the old-school body shaped coffins, which weren’t really well represented here, but no matter; the depressing story of the coffin built for three (it was meant for a couple who planned to kill themselves after their child died, so they could all be buried together, but apparently changed their minds, as it was never used) made up for it.

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I finally made it over to the Presidential Funeral section, which was not as big nor as extensive as I’d been hoping (especially compared to the papal one), and focused mainly on Lincoln, I guess because he had the most public and extravagant funeral.  Because he was the first to be assassinated AND he was president during such a pivotal time in American history, the American people really went all out for his funeral, arranging for his body to be embalmed (which really began to become more mainstream because of the American Civil War) and carried on a special funeral train throughout major Northern American cities on the way home to Springfield, Illinois, where he would be buried.  One of the stops was Cleveland, and I definitely would have turned up to see it, you know, had I been born 150 years earlier or so, but since I don’t own a TARDIS or other time machine, I enjoyed looking at the miniature model of the train.

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You all know how much I love FDR, and I confess I was hoping for more on his funeral than the brief treatment it got, but alas, that was the fate of most of the presidents, save for the assassinated ones and Ronald Reagan.  A brief blurb if they were lucky (and maybe only ten of them even got that much), and maybe a newspaper article relating to their death.

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The final section was a tribute to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the soldiers from all the various wars who have been buried in Arlington National Cemetery.  There didn’t appear to be a special exhibit at the time we visited, although future ones on the myths and legends of the graveyard and the history of cremation in America look pretty interesting, and I’m sorry to have missed them.

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I was a little disappointed in the shop (they could have had a better selection of souvenirs relating to the museum, like postcards and books, instead of generic skeleton stuff), and I do wish the presidential section could have been more comprehensive, but overall, the museum more than lived up to my expectations (which were admittedly pretty damn high).  I’m fascinated by morbid stuff like this, so I loved it, especially the Victorian funeral history section and the casket and hearse collection.  In fact, I think there could have been even more funeral history, since that gallery seemed to skip over most of the advances in preservation between the Egyptians and the Victorians, which is a big time period to exclude.  For example, I think the work of early modern anatomists and preservationists like Frederik Ruysch (there he is again), was revolutionary, and well-worth a mention.  Those things aside though, the National Museum of Funeral History really delivered, and I’m thrilled I can finally cross this one off the list, since I’ve been waiting to see it for so damn long.  4/5.  And because I won’t have another post out until next week, and I can’t neglect my favourite holiday, I’ll use this as an opportunity to wish you all a happy (scary?) Halloween!

Prague: Death Exhibition at the National Museum

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Remember that death series happening around Prague that I mentioned in my last post? (You can just scroll on down to it if you don’t, not that it really matters.)  Well, to carry on with that, here’s the exhibition at the new building of the National Museum, which is right next to the old building, at the end of Wenceslas Square.  As far as I can tell, the old building is currently under construction, so only the new building has exhibitions in it, and even then, it appeared to be limited to two temporary ones.  It’s 160 CZK if you want to see both of them, but the Noah’s Ark exhibit seemed like it was aimed at children, so I opted to pay 100 CZK (around 3 quid) to see just the death exhibit.  Until now, I couldn’t figure out why it was called SMRT; because it was all caps with no vowels, I assumed it was some kind of acronym (or a Simpsons joke), but it turns out that smrt means death in most Slavic languages.  No idea how you say it with no vowels though! Smert?

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The death exhibition is on the ground floor of the building, and turned out to be divided into three separate sections.  The first was called “Life and Death in the History of the Earth” and was more like a natural history exhibit, with lots of taxidermied animals and facts about death in the animal kingdom.  Fortunately, this being a major museum, everything was translated into English.  However, rather oddly for a new exhibition, the signs had a dated look to them.  I don’t know, the whole exhibition felt rather old-fashioned, which is no bad thing, but not what you’d expect from a large national institution in this day and age.  So there was plenty to read, but not really anything interactive, which was ok as at least it meant there weren’t many children in attendance (well, because of that and the subject matter, I suppose).

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My favourite aspect of the exhibition was the creative manner in which some of the things were translated into English.  For example, the description of that vulturey type bird above as “bad-looking.”  Delightful.  After a few rooms discussing various types of predators and poisonous (and venomous) plants and animals, the exhibit segued into ancient burial practices, with a display of some mummies and skeletons.  There were also some items found in the burial ground of a medieval monastery.

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This section of the exhibition was by far the largest, and I particularly liked the skull-lined room in the narrow hallway leading out of it.  However, the next section, called “Dealing with Death,” was probably the most interesting, at least to my morbid sensibilities.  It began with a discussion of anatomy, and some early modern anatomists like (my favourite) Frederik Ruysch (love his work), and then progressed into the various ways people die.  So there were some exciting stories of famous Czech murder cases, a re-creation of a crime scene, and a whole room full of execution devices, most of which appeared to have actually been used. The wheel, used for smashing people’s bones systematically until they eventually died, was probably the most horrible (they’d smash your vital organs first if they liked you, otherwise you had to wait until after your limbs and stuff got broken), but the scaffold creeped me out a bit too, as that had definitely been used at some point. (For more on historical methods of execution, The Faithful Executioner is worth a read, although all the conjecture gets a little annoying.)

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There was also an educational room about suicide, which broke down the methods people use by gender, as well as the suicide rates of various professions.  And some posters discussing famous people who had committed suicide.  Most moving of all was the part on end-of-life care, which carried on into the main hall of the museum with a film about an older gentleman who’d moved into hospice.  I watched a few minutes of it, and it seemed sad, yet honest and informative (I didn’t want it to turn into another Up ordeal where I started crying in public, so I wasn’t going to watch the whole thing in case the guy died at the end).

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The final section, entitled “Dealing with Death and Funeral Rituals” was by far the smallest and was again mostly an overview of ancient funeral customs, with some Greek and Roman objects found in grave sites, but also included things like funeral music (with headphones for listening), and some of the items used in modern embalming techniques.  This was probably the least enjoyable section, for me, as a lot of it was on religion and anthropology, which admittedly aren’t my favourite topics.

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I guess this exhibition wasn’t quite what I was hoping for (I think I had something less natural history related, and more goth in mind, maybe), but it wasn’t bad, for all that it felt rather dated.  I really did like the second section on “Dealing with Death” quite a lot, and for three pounds, it was a decent way to spend an hour. I’m happy that something like this was offered, as I think death is a fascinating topic, even if some of the content wasn’t necessarily what I would have preferred.  3/5.

 

New York City: Morbid Anatomy Museum

I’ve finally finished with Berlin!  (I can hear you breathing a collective sigh of relief.)  Sorry to drag it out so long, but I’ve been in America for the past few weeks, sans laptop, which makes it difficult to get much writing done.  But now you can see that one of the places I’ve been visiting is New York City.  I’d never been before (save for the airports), so I was excited to spend a few days there. Because I went with my brother, who has a low tolerance for museums,  I was somewhat limited in the weird attractions I could visit, trying to stick to only one a day (in the end, I didn’t even achieve that meagre total).  Unwisely (in retrospect), one of the places I decided was a must-see was the Morbid Anatomy Museum, in Brooklyn.

Now, I’ve long found their blog quite useful for finding medical museums and various other links to strange things (though not as useful as it could be if they’d simply organise their damn links by location – it is a bitch to search through them all alphabetically as most of the museums don’t begin their name with the city they’re in), even though I was unable to find any medical museums in New York City itself (which is pretty unbelievable in a city that size, and one of the many reasons I prefer London), so I had high hopes for the museum.  We arrived at the fairly nondescript building at noon, just as they opened (the street it’s on is also pretty crummy looking, but must not be that bad, since there was a huge Whole Foods down the block).  The ground floor is devoted to a cafe and shop, which did seem to have many interesting books, albeit at prices I couldn’t afford, and the museum is upstairs and costs $10. I thought that seemed like a lot to pay, but New York museum prices generally seem pretty inflated, so I just rolled with it, and hoped that the museum would be worth it.  As you may have guessed, it was not.

Naturally, you weren’t allowed to take pictures, because that’s how that sort of place works – I assume it’s so other people can’t see how small it is before they visit.  The museum was literally one room.  The current exhibit (which is all that’s there) is on death, so the contents of the room consisted of a few death masks, some spirit photography (where the faces of dead loved ones are superimposed as “ghosts” on a picture), and some mourning jewellery.  The signage was perfectly adequate, there just wasn’t a lot to see there.  To cap it off, the staff were all very self-consciously weird hipsters, and weren’t particularly friendly – the one guy who worked there kept talking to himself whilst we were the only other people in the museum, which I found really off-putting, especially because it didn’t seem like it was something he wasn’t aware of, but rather that he was trying to come across as strange.

There was another room attached, but it was a small library; it had a few taxidermy specimens sprinkled around here and there, and some fantastic books (I know because I own quite a few of them, and would like to own many others if they weren’t expensive and out-of-print), but I didn’t feel welcome enough to sit down and look through any of them (frankly, I don’t even know whether I was allowed to).  I am bearing in mind that their main library is currently closed, so perhaps they have better artefacts in there, as they’re meant to have a permanent collection somewhere, but their temporary exhibit was unbelievably lame.  I admit that I am spoiled by the excellent (and free!) exhibition on death that the Wellcome Collection put on a few years ago, but it’s hard for me to see how “the Morbid Anatomy Museum hosts the kind of temporary exhibitions that very few larger museums can produce” (as per their website), when I’ve seen better at pretty much every other medical museum, regardless of size (and most of those were free or very cheap!).  I know America can do better (for example, the Mutter Museum in Philly, which I adore), so I found the museum, and the price, very disappointing.  There are, however, many excellent places to eat around Brooklyn (I’d recommend especially the doughnuts from Pies n Thighs, and ice cream from Ample Hills Creamery or (the also hipstery, but friendlier staffed) Brooklyn Farmacy), so you might find yourself in the area anyway, but there must be something better to do there than this.  I honestly wish I’d rather just gone to Lorimer Street and snapped a picture in front of a Tree of Heaven or a suitably tenement-looking building or something, so I could pretend to be Francie Nolan (sans the extreme poverty).  I hate to say it, because I wanted so much to like this museum, but it’s nothing special, and kind of a rip-off.  1.5/5.