Silence and Screams: The Interpretation of Punishment Devices In Museums

Wandering through the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I headed towards one of my favourite sections: crime and punishment in early modern Scotland. As I walked through the tranquil halls of the museum, observing the artefacts and reading the accompanying descriptions, it occurred to me how easy it is to forget that these items were once tools of torture and terror.

How should such artefacts – thumb screws, a scold’s bridle and The Maiden guillotine – be interpreted in museums? These are artefacts which symbolise the dark side to our society’s history and also remind the viewer of similar, still-existent practices today. How should such objects make the visitor feel, what thoughts should they provoke and how should museums handle the display of such artefacts?

Our society has a fascination with pain and terror in history. Many tourist attractions thrive on this interest: establishments like the Edinburgh Dungeons, the Amsterdam Torture Museum and the Prague Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments are major attractions. Yet these museums, and displays like those in the NMS, do not directly engage with the reality of historical torture devices. 

The displays fail to express how horrific these machines really were. They remain disconnected from historic reality and the human capacity for terror is overlooked. Certainly the darkened rooms and eerie lighting of the Amsterdam and Prague torture museums help create a morbid, intimidating atmosphere, but visitors still view torture devices outside of their true context. Screams of terror, blood and damp of a dungeon are absent. Inside a glass cabinet, the devices become clean and distanced from their past use.

It is true that the imagination can work wonders: the imposing Maiden, dominating the NMS crime and punishment exhibit, cannot fail to invoke dread. Nevertheless, the official descriptions concentrate on the guillotine’s invention and the mechanics behind the machine, not its real use. Similarly, whilst the Edinburgh Dungeons dramatically re-enact gruesome history, the theatrical nature of the experience arguably detaches the visitor from any sense of historical reality. The Dungeons provide an exaggerated, entertaining view of history which induces thrills and fear, but inspires no serious meditation on historical experience.

The sanitised display of torture weapons does not give a real representation of the history. One could even argue that viewing these artefacts in such a casual and detached viewing is disrespectful towards those who suffered violent punishment. TripAdvisor reviews of the Prague Museum of Medieval Torture emphasise the museum’s ‘excellent displays’, ‘mind blowing’ effects and usefulness as an attraction to ‘dip into’ when the rain comes on. Rarely do these reviewers consider what the artefacts really tell us about the human capacity for terror and torture and the effect on the victims.

The solution to this conundrum is difficult. Should museum visitors be forced to directly consider objects of terror? Arguably this would be equally problematic; museums have to follow ethical codes and many visitors would find it too disturbing to consider these issues too deeply. Museums need to consider how to induce a greater understanding of the historical reality of torture devices, whilst still avoiding both theatrical exaggeration and dehumanisation of the experience. A visit to a museum should be equal parts a learning curve and enjoyable, and museums should ultimately seek to strike a balance between these two sides of the experience.

Image: Son of Groucho