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What does ‘museum’ actually mean? Unusual museums from around the globe

From strange artworks to severed heads, it’s safe to say that the word “museum” is a an umbrella term that can be interpreted in many unique and unorthodox ways.

Most people have an image that comes to mind when they hear the word “museum”, and chances are it’s an image of quiet halls, neatly hung artworks, and artefacts carefully displayed in glass cases.

And while many museums follow this basic blueprint, there are certainly those that choose a different path. In reality, the title of “museum” can refer to a whole host of different spaces and experiences.

With thousands of museums across the globe, each with their own subject matter, items and atmosphere, developing an overarching definition for cultural institutions is almost impossible. To celebrate the diversity of the museum space, we’re going to take a closer look at some of the weirdest and most wonderful museums from around the world.

The Plastinarium – Guben, Germany

Sometimes museums aim to teach us more about the world around us, and sometimes they ask us to look inwards in order to learn something about ourselves. In the case of the Plastinarium, the museum gets us to do this in quite a graphic way.

After nearly four decades of studying medicine and dissection, Gunther von Hagens perfected the controversial process of plastination, in which polymers are used to preserve human tissue. Visitors to the Plastinarium can see the results of this process, receiving a graphic lesson in anatomy by viewing humans and animals in creative poses.

Museum of Bad Art – Massachusetts, United States of America

Most galleries only offer space in their exhibitions to the very best works of art, but when it comes to the Museum of Bad Art in Massachusetts, the opposite is true. Here, more than 600 pieces of truly terrible art (of course, it’s possible to argue this is a subjective claim) are given the chance to shine.

You may be thinking, why would anyone ever visit? But think about the number of people who love to look at works of modern art and say, “my five-year-old could have done that”. At the MoBA, chances are this is true.

Avanos Hair Museum – Avanos, Turkey

Once upon a time, the quaint town of Avanos in central Turkey was famous for its beautiful earthenware pottery. Nowadays, however, the town has gained recognition for a very different, somewhat hairy reason.

At the Avanos Hair Museum, visitors can immerse themselves in the world’s largest collection of human hair, with locks gathered from more than 16,000 women. Each piece of hair is labelled with the name and address of its over, creating a strange cultural rainbow of every shade and texture.

The Kunstkamera – St Petersburg, Russia

When it comes to morbid fascination, the Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg is hard to beat. At first glance, the establishment appears like your more traditional museum, with neat display cases featuring a range of labelled artefacts.

But take a closer look, and you’ll see that these items are anything but ordinary. From deformed foetuses and decapitated human heads, to creatures with extra limbs, the museum houses more than 200,000 natural and human oddities.

Fun fact: the original collection was put together by Tsar Peter himself as a way to dispel people’s belief in monsters. We’re not sure of the logic there either!

Siriraj Medical Museum – Bangkok, Thailand

Otherwise known as the Museum of Death, the Siriraj Medical Museum in Bangkok is certainly not for the fainthearted. As soon as you enter the building, you’re greeted by the preserved skeleton of the museum’s founder, and things only get stranger from there.

Lungs cut by knife wounds, skulls punctured by bullets and mutilated limbs are just some of the displays visitors can look forward to, blurring the line between museum and slasher film. The museum shows the grizzliest ways to die to great effect: its morbid hospital exhibition is the most popular attraction in the capital.

Museum of Enduring Beauty – Bandar Melaka, Malaysia

You’d be forgiven for assuming from the name that the Museum of Enduring Beauty specialises in fashion, hair and make-up over the centuries, and to an extent you’d be right, but this only scratches the surface of what the space has to offer.

The Museum of Enduring Beauty explores some of the most extreme lengths people have gone to in order to attain standards of beauty in their culture. This includes binding their feet, moulding infant heads into oval shapes, and placing inserts into their mouths to create wide, hanging jaws.

By the end, visitors are fully converted to the notion that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

International Spy Museum – Washington, D.C., United States of America

The world of espionage is murky to say the least, but fans of everything from Bond to Smiley can indulge in the largest ever collection of spy artefacts at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.

As well as viewing fascinating items like counterfeit money, disguised weapons and cipher machines, visitors also have the chance to take part in their own interactive spy adventures, adopt their own covers, and unearth some of the greatest spy mysteries of all time.

Cancun Underwater Museum – Cancun, Mexico

Sometimes, the setting of a museum is just as exciting as what it offers inside. This is certainly the case with the Cancun Underwater Museum which, as the same suggests, is located on the sea floor.

Constructed in 2009, the museum features 500 life-size sculptures that double as an artificial reef designed to promote the growth of coral in waters surrounding Cancun. The result is an eerie yet ethereal space that serves to educate us about our relationship with the environment. Visitors can explore everything the museum has to offer via glass bottom boat, snorkelling, or scuba diving.

It’s hard to find things in common between a museum about coral and one dedicated to corpses, but it is possible to draw parallels between each of these spaces. Despite their wildly different subject matters, each of these museums aim to educate, entertain and engage; broadening the horizons of those who enter its doors. Perhaps that’s really what the museum is all about.

About the author – Rebecca Carlsson

Rebecca Carlsson is a journalist writing extensively about the arts. She has a passion for modern art and when she’s not writing about museums, she can be found spending her weekends in them.

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