A A few months after the declaration of the pandemic and the shutdown of cultural life in our cities, museum curators around the world began posting their collections on social media in a #curatorbattle launched by the Yorkshire Museum. Weekly challenges unearthed #sassiestobject, #fantasticfakes, #mysteryobjects and even the #bestmuseumbum.
But it was really #creepiestobject that got the internet talking and sharing creepy dolls, animal penises and supernatural objects.
I remembered this challenge as I set out to find and classify the strangest objects in Australian museum collections. A few of these are taken from the Museum of Old and New Art of Tasmania (Mona), the poster child for the quirky, but many are hidden gems from universities or smaller institutions. Museums are places of wonder, but these objects range from whimsical to downright creepy. Sorry for the nightmares.
ten. Cane Toad Diorama, Museum of Queensland
This original object was created by Kevin Ladynski, a taxidermist who has created several dioramas of cane toads in various anthropomorphized settings. In this particular diorama, the cane toads are set up like convicts performing manual labor; in others, they are shown at a boxing match, in a nightclub, or at the scene of a car accident.
Ladynski appeared in the 2010 documentary Cane Toads: The Conquest, which examines pest species, one of our biggest environmental mistakes, and its impact on northern Australia. A planned traveling show of its toad exhibits didn’t quite take off, but its eclectic exhibits have tickled viewers over the years.
9. Sad Otter, Museums Victoria
Sad Otter is no longer on display, but it was once part of the Melbourne Museum’s Wild installation – a dizzying display of over 1,000 stuffed animals that greeted visitors to the museum. The specimen is a giant otter purchased by the museum in 1884.
His grim face kicked off a bunch of memes, tattoos, and stuffed toys when he was featured on the Bad Taxidermy website in 2012. Why is he so sad? According to experts at the Melbourne Museum, the people who stuffed it may have never seen a live otter before.
8. Vampire Killing Kit, Victoria Police Museum
This object came into the possession of the police after a drug raid in 2004. The kit contains a wooden stake, a bottle of holy water, a crucifix, a pistol and silver pistol bullets with crosses on them. The lettering on the box is the Ephesia Grammata, a mantra which, when pronounced correctly, supposedly offered protection against dark forces.
It supposedly dates from the 19th century, but Dr. Patrick Spedding, a scholar of Gothic literature at Monash University, is skeptical: “If this is the 19th century, I’ll eat my head” were his approximate words. He thinks it’s probably a later novelty, inspired by films like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Sleepy Hollow (1999).
Despite this, kits like these seem to be very popular. Similar boxes have been found around the world, with Sotheby’s selling one for over US$25,000.
7. My Beautiful Chair, Mona, Tasmania
More poignant than eerie, this haunting installation simulates the process of euthanasia in a cozy living room and is known to bring viewers to tears.
It was created by sculptor Greg Taylor and Dr Philip Nitschke, an advocate of euthanasia and inventor of “the deliverance machine”, which was legal in the Northern Territory between 1995 and 1997. Nitschke’s deliverance machine was connected to a computer that asked a series of questions. to confirm a person’s wish to die before administering a killing blow.
The art installation is activated when someone sits in the leather chair and asks participants the exact same questions as the Deliverance Machine. If consent is given, it describes the physiological response of the body until the very end when the screen displays: âYou are now deadâ.
6. On the Highway to Heaven The Highway to Hell, Mona, Tasmania (pictured above)
This is a life-size chocolate sculpture, by Stephen J Shanabrook, supposedly based on a photograph of the severed body of a teenage suicide bomber. Shanabrook’s preoccupation with death and chocolate could be explained by his biography – he is the son of a city coroner and grew up working in a chocolate factory.
Shanabrook himself describes his work as giving “new and often disturbing meaning to substances and forms otherwise associated with comfort, happiness and banality…”. evil figure of Willy Wonka.
5. Details of executionsPublic Records Office, Victoria
This Hangman’s Diary contains 100 years of details of executions carried out at Old Melbourne Gaol and Pentridge Prison. Detailed reviews observe the “effectiveness” of each execution, with chilling lines like: “Death was instantaneous.” It is important to include details of the execution of Ronald Ryan, the last man to be legally executed in Australia. Discretion of reading recommended for weak stomachs.
4. The ‘UFO File’, State Records Office of Western Australia
This archive recording is so unusual that I had to include it. The WA State Archives hold this curious file of UFO sightings reported between 1950 and 1970.
Some very frightened members of the public have reported strange sightings of silent flying objects with bright lights and the ability to change direction very quickly. A few witnesses even mention being followed by silently hovering objects while driving. A rather bizarre report includes testimony from a man who was driving when his vehicle suddenly stopped on its own. He then witnessed a bright light outside the windshield for about five minutes and felt like he was being âwatchedâ.
In an interview with ABC Radio Perth, Damien Hassan, a senior archivist, notes that the police appeared to take these reports “very seriously” and that there was also considerable interest in these sightings from the army of the air and the US government. You can read the entire digitized file on the archives site.
3. Sixteenth-century book bound with human skin, Federation University Australia Historical Collection, Victoria
This creepy article is a religious book written in Old English and Latin and dates from 1599. The practice of binding books with human skin, or anthropodermic bibliopegy, was quite common in the early modern era and used the skins of criminals, medical or destitute corpses.
What does it do, you might be wondering? So does leather, says curator Clare Gervasoni. There was some doubt as to the material of the binding until a student specializing in biomedicine at Federation University confirmed that most of the cover of the book was largely made of human skin, with some parts made from a rat.
The binding is rather modest, and it’s not until you spot some very visible (and human-recognizable) hair follicles that you start to feel a little uneasy.
2. Cloaca Professional AKA “The Poo Machine”, Mona, Tasmania
There’s something otherworldly about Mona, Hobart’s eclectic private gallery founded by David Walsh. Entering this windowless underground gallery via a spiral staircase feels like stepping deep into the subconscious to be confronted with sex, death, and disgust. The last of these is best exemplified by the Cloaca Professional, an exhibition created by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye as an expression of the meaninglessness of life.
Otherwise known as a âpoo machine,â this setup mimics the digestive system and turns food into feces. Food is fed into the machine daily and visitors can watch it being processed before it is excreted out the other end – with a foul smell.
1. “Private Matters” by Percy Grainger, Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne, Victoria
Percy Grainger is one of Australia’s most famous and colorful musicians, best known as the composer of Country Gardens and for his deep obsession with British Isles folk music. If you grew up playing the piano, you may have learned some of his bucolic pieces, like “Will you gang tae the Hielands, Lizzie Lindsay?”
But Grainger’s personal life was far less serene than his music. Before his death in 1961, he deposited a box in his bank account labeled “Private Affairs”, with instructions not to open it until 10 years after his death. When the box was finally opened, they found 80 whips, an erotic collection, photographs explicitly documenting his sado-masochistic practices, and even a bloodstained shirt. He left further instructions for these objects to be displayed in the “Lust Branch” of the Grainger Museum which he had founded at the University of Melbourne.
What was once an autobiographical museum has been reimagined as an experimental space dedicated to music, art, multimedia and architecture. The collection, which will be available online, includes around 100,000 items from Grainger’s life, although his generous offer to display his skeleton in the museum never materialized.