Category Archives: Offbeat Museums

Offbeat Museums, The Occult / ,

A Museum of Nightmares in the Shadow of the Eiffel Tower

I don’t think about hair. I mean, sure I’m losing mine. And sure, the musical is one of the greatest things of all time.

But really… is hirsituity that big a deal? Big enough for the Musée de Quai Branly to brazenly devote an entire exhibit to it? Lord no! And Lord YES!

(Adapting my professorial voice here, and pushing my glasses up my nose ever so slightly.)

You see, hair is a symbol of sensuality, sexuality, virility. And that’s clearly why this exhibit features a score — yes, A SCORE — of shrunken heads.

Shrunken HEADS? Do they really fit among the Elizabethan ebony busts of African hairdos, and photos of French starlets from the 60s? I mean, I guess they did have hair to kill for… almost Bon Jovian sometimes…

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Historical Wonders, Offbeat Museums, The Occult / ,

The Ossuaries of Paris…

This was like the trip to Disneyworld I’ve never taken. My golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory. Our trip to North Korea.

I know you’ve already been. Many times. But walking these two kilometers, I realized why this was one of my mom’s favorite places in Paris. Two kilometers of stacked-up bones, all to us. Entirely alone. So damned romantic.

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/ by Dean Pickles / 3 Comments
Offbeat Museums, The Taxidermy Diaries / ,

M. Deyrolle’s Lovely Collection of Taxidermy

At 200 euros for a simple mounted mouse, Paris’ 1831 taxidermy haven is overpriced. It’s also bloated with “no photos allowed” signs, and entirely short of anthropomorphic artistry, But it was also glorious.

Oh yes, it was in fact Michelle’s dream to go…

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/ by Dean Pickles / 2 Comments
Offbeat Museums / ,

My Gout, and Jules Baretta’s Wax Museum of Incredible Diseases

The Bangalore doctor frowned at the printouts of my blood tests.

“Do you eat innards? You know, like brains, liver, kidneys?”

Well, dear reader, if you know me, you know the answer is yes.

“And red meat?” I nodded. “And herring and mackerel?” Oh yes! “Well, you must stop. Your urea levels are dangerously high. You are at risk of gout.”

I didn’t tell him about the trip to Paris. And here I am, doing my best to bring this gout on.

Foie gras, smoked salmon, and plates and plates of steak tartare. Fromage–chèvre, bleu, roquefort, some spicy little thing–and islands of egg white floating in a sweet cream sauce. My gout isn’t near. It’s probably already got me.

And that’s one of the reasons we stopped at Paris’ Musée de Moulages de l’Hôpital Saint-Louis, or–as it should have been called–Jules Baretta’s Wax Museum of Sweetly Incredible Diseases for the Edification of Les Students.


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Devoted Obsession, Offbeat Museums / , ,

Dr Shankar’s Wonderful Collection of Brains and Other Medical Obscura

It came up over a bowl of brain stew at Karim’s, Old Delhi’s famously-dingy 1913 eatery.

“Tasty,” I said, wiping my mouth. “By the way, did I tell you about the brain museum in Bangalore? The architect told me we should go.”

Michelle tore off a piece of naan, and sopped up a wet chunk of brain. “We have to go,” she said.

And this weekend, we did.

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/ by Dean Pickles / 9 Comments
Offbeat Museums / ,

The Quirk of Bangalore Palace


The old Tudor-style castle in the middle of Bangalore is touted as a tourist must-see. It’s not. But there are three reasons you might want to go… See them at

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Offbeat Museums / ,

Rediscovering Beijing: The Ancient Observatory

The author of the the 1897 guide book charts the Astronomical Observatory as one of the must-sees of Old Peking. It’s his first stop on any three-day tour.

I’d always planned to pay a visit. This is what you see from the highway:

Almost identical, but…

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Offbeat Museums / ,

The Chinese Businessman Museum

With only ten days left in Beijing, I’m realizing how many things I’ve left undone. The Summer Palace… Fragrant Hills… the Chinese Businessman Museum!

It’s ugly, so you might not notice it. It’s in Sihui, so it’s hell to reach. It’s expensive, so who wants to enter.

And it’s also a lie.

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Offbeat Museums / , ,

Castration Classes at the Beijing Eunuch Culture Exhibition Hall

The first time I ever met The Professor, he told me about the eunuch museum. He didn’t say much. Just that there was one. In West Beijing.

“You really should go,” he said. “It’s… well, it’s interesting.” He adjusted his glasses the way a professor should, but he wouldn’t say more.

A few weeks later, I found myself staring through smudged plexiglas at the only remaining inhabitant of the Beijing Eunuch Culture Exhibition Hall. He was, of course, dead.

Covered by an imperial yellow sheet, this junkless monk apparently died of lead poisoning. 400 years later, he was dug up and stuck in a case. His name wasn’t recorded, but I doubt it was Tian Yi.

Tian Yi (田以) was the most famous Chinese eunuch that ever lived. He served a series of three Emperors, and carried his genitals in a jug. His 1605 funeral was insane: the government shut for days, hundreds of eunuchs attended, and he was buried like a king. And just like any other Chinese royal, his grave was robbed.

“I’m too scared,” said a Chinese teenage girl. “Can you come with me?”

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/ by Dean Pickles / 3 Comments
Offbeat Museums / ,

Speaking of Revolution at The Beijing Police Museum

“Have you heard about the coup?”

“Only that there may have been one.”

The Professor and I were making our way through Beijing’s Police Museum, a few blocks from where a coup would have happened. We’d already broken the door of a fake interrogation cell, and almost knocked over a motorcycle. We shouldn’t have been talking about such sensitive matters as well. But we seemed to be the only visitors, and the few guards weren’t paying attention.

“I have a friend who works for a Chinese newspaper,” he continued. “I rang to ask her about it. See if she knows what happened.”

“So what happened?”

“Well, when I said the word ‘coup,’ music started playing. We’d been cut off.”

In China, you hear these things all the time. Phone calls go dead with the spoken word “jasmine.” Internet connections terminate with a search for “1989.” My blog will be blocked again in China. Certain topics don’t exist.

Sometimes the cultural revolution doesn’t exist. But at this museum, it was a cause to be championed. Over 100 Beijing police officers were wrongly executed for “counter-revolutionary” crimes. Thousands more were tortured, or sent down. The chief of police died without ever being cleared of his weak accusations.

Alongside the uniforms and badges of the executed officers, there were also horrific photos of mass executions. The photos showed men tied to stakes at the Worker’s Stadium, prepped for bullets to the head.

I felt sick. The Worker’s Stadium is a few blocks from my home. Beijing GuoAn have weekly soccer matches there. I’d seen Cui Jian, China’s revolutionary rocker, play a massive show there.

“40,000 people witnessed the executions,” a sign read. The stands were packed. For Cui Jian, the stadium had been comparatively empty.

Other pictures scattered through the museum were just as difficult. One showed a flayed woman, held upright by two Qing Dynasty men. They wore queues and skull caps, while her breasts and thighs had been carved off. Another photo showed eight women’s corpses, discarded through a house. A body found in the luggage rack of a train. Temple blasts, serial killers in training, amputations and decapitations and more.

“Look at that,” said a woman, pointing to a murder implement in a glass case. Her four-year-old son wasn’t looking. He was fixated on the Professor and me.

Not surprisingly, for all the gore and crime, there wasn’t a mention of 1989. There never is.

In China, we rarely know what’s actually going on. Take the last few weeks for example. Key politicians have disappeared, others have gone into hiding or comas. Tanks may or may not have driven along major thoroughfares. Guns may or may not have fired in the city center. We live in the capital city, and have no idea if the government is fighting a coup.

Outside on the sidewalk, undercover cops stretched into the distance. They stood innocently spaced out every 20 feet. One held a walkie talkie behind his back. Another held a fire extinguisher. When they walked, they marched. Some couldn’t help but stand at attention.

“So how do you say coup,” I asked the Professor.

“政变. 政 as in government, and 变 as in change.”

One of the undercover cops crossed the street. He signaled to another, who signaled back.

I wonder what’s happening in the city where I live.

Beijing Police Museum 北京警察博物馆
36 Dongjiaominxiang, Beijing

/ by Dean Pickles / 2 Comments
Offbeat Museums / ,

Beijing’s Supercool Steampunk Printing Museum

“There’s nothing like that around here,” said a shoe-repair man.

Two waitresses laughed at us, and a woman selling onions gasped. “A watermelon museum?” she asked, “Really?”

So we tried the Printing Museum instead.

It was closed. The 12-foot-tall black doors, the entire four-floor building, was firmly locked. I’d read about a great statue of the father of printing, Bi Sheng, and sprawling planographic exhibits. But it, like the Watermelon Museum, was just out of our grasp.

Until Michelle discovered an unlocked door leading into a basement.

“Let’s go!” she whispered, and rushed down. I followed, unsure.

Down a flight of stairs, through more doorways, down a corridor, and into a massive skylit hall. It was filled with machines: ball-shaking proofing presses, film linearisators, letterpress dusters, and saddle wire binding machines. 1980s computers sat discarded beside 10′-tall dinosaurs of rusting cogs and gears and levers. Presses dripped oil onto blankets shoved beneath them.

Michelle showed me the machine she prints on, then pointed to another.

“But that’s what it’s really like,” she said.

The name of the machine was only one word.


Beijing Printing Museum, 中国印刷博物馆
Northwest corner of Qingyuan Lu Subway Stop (Line 4)
Beijing, Daxing, Xinghua Street, 黄村镇兴华北路25号
+86 10 6026 1049 ‎

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Offbeat Museums, Theme Parks / ,

Chinese Freak Shows: An Age-Old New Years Tradition

Two-headed ladies! Ladies with tails! Big-headed ladies and snake-eating ladies and elephants, too!

All this, for only 75 cents!

Every year, for Chinese New Year, these tents appear across the country. This one was in rural Shanxi Province. Outside, an old lady counted her renminbi in the cold. She shouted out “Five kuai!”

She completely ignored the monkey on the swing.

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/ by Dean Pickles / 2 Comments
Cute & Kawaii, Devoted Obsession, Offbeat Museums / ,

The Owl Lady and Her Gazillion Owls

I love obsessions, and Myong-Hee Bae is obsessed. She’s a freak for owls.

Her home is crammed full of 3,000 owl-y items. Clocks, quilts, paintings, stamps, cut-outs hanging from the ceiling, mugs filled with steaming hot tea, candles, toys, and rugs. It was weird. And absolutely wonderful.

“Her love of owl started when she was in 2nd grade,” a clumsy document she printed out, then handed to me, read. “She was very much attracted by the big eyes of the wooden own sculpture and became owl mania.”

She spoke no English besides “tea?”, and we spoke no Korean at all, so this document was all the info we had to go on. She wouldn’t let us take a photo of her.

But everywhere she went, she sought out owls. Everyone who visited her brought an owl. Before long, the bizarre collection included owls from across the globe.

She reminded me a little of Paul MacLeod. He was obsessed with Elvis. He shared this obsession with his son, Elvis Aaron Presley MacLeod. Paul told me, years ago, that his wife left him because he was too obsessed with the King. She set down the gauntlet, and said, “It’s him or me, Paul.” Paul made his choice, and she moved out.

Myong-Hee Bae’s husband didn’t fight it. He brought her even more. And when they married, this bird of prey collection was considered the family jewel. Now that’s romance.

But doesn’t it all kind of remind you of this?

The Owl Art and Craft Museum, 27-21 Samcheong-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea

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Offbeat Museums / , , , , ,

The Incredible Dollhouse Explosion of Xi’an

Dark and modern and ultra-creepy, the Hanyangling Museum of Xi’an is empty of tourists, but crammed with pits of naked, two-foot-tall men. It’s something like an explosion in a doll factory, or a scene of marionette massacre.

Their silk robes and wooden swords and wooden arms rotted away centuries ago, leaving them unarmed and armless, but their little bodies (and penises) remain.

It reminded me of Gacy’s basement. A clown scene of true boy terror.

This is the mausoleum of Liu Qi, Emperor of China from 156 to 141 BC. His reign was short, but his tomb took a magnificent 28 years to build. It’s filled with thousands of pottery warriors to guard the spirit of the ancient emperor, and thousands of dogs, sheep, horses, chickens, and pigs for the pottery guards to feast on. It’s like the terracotta warriors. But unlike those, this isn’t awful. This is a place of awesome.

The mausoleum of Liu Qi, and that of his wife Empress Wang, took 28 years to build. The government have spent the last 30 digging them up, and yet they’ve barely even started. Two grassy peaks flank this 2-acre museum, and they’re thought to be filled with acres more ancient awesomeness.

I can’t wait to see what’s inside those….

/ by Dean Pickles / 5 Comments
Devoted Obsession, Offbeat Museums / , ,

This Strange Collector Has 1,000 Pairs of Shoes (and a Fetish for Foot Binding)

Yang Shaorong lives in a small Shanghai apartment. He collects women’s shoes. Tiny shoes. Shoes for bound feet.

“That’s horrible,” said the publisher of my magazine, when I mentioned Yang the collector to him. “It’s a disturbing part of Chinese history.”

I was confused. I didn’t really know much about them, or why he was so upset. So I did some reading. And the more I learned, the more nauseous I became.

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/ by Dean Pickles / 7 Comments
Historical Wonders, Offbeat Museums / , ,

America started the war, and lost it, too.

“Look at that soldier,” said a burly Dongbei redneck, shoving past me to get a better look at the painting. “He’s on fire. He’s a real man.”

His sweaty pal leaned in, and laughed. The torched soldier was still letting loose a volley of bullets from his machine gun, mowing down a row of terrified pale Americans. “That’s awesome.”

They probably didn’t realize I understood what they were saying. I didn’t stick around to find out.

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Offbeat Museums / , , , ,

Fascinating Old Handbook for Chinese Heading Overseas

In Chinese, hello is 你好。 What? Can’t read characters? Just say knee-how (or nǐhǎo1, nixao2 or niihao3).

What about the reverse, though? How do Chinese learn English if they can’t read Latin alphabets? Can you use characters, instead? Can “Hello” be written as 河罗 (héluō4). Can “Who is he?” be spelled out as “夫,衣寺,希” (fu hu, yī sì, xī or “Husband clothes temple hope”)?

Back in 1912, someone tried just this. A remarkable book was published for southern Chinese heading to the US and Canada. It’s called “Half-Chinese, Half-Western English” (半唐番英语), and I recently managed to track down a few pages, hidden in a small museum in rural Guangdong. And it’s amazing.

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/ by Dean Pickles / 4 Comments
Offbeat Museums / ,


Who is Totoman? Nobody knows.

But is this Totoboy?

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Offbeat Museums / ,

Chinese Tunnel Warfare and Sexual Escapades, Together!

Jiao Zhibing is 70 years old. He’s spent his entire life in a tiny village called Jiaozhuanghu (焦庄户). As a child, he handled missives and reconnaissance for liberation fighters. Today though, carrying wood-carved grenades and a red-tasseled spear everywhere he goes, he’s a living tourist attraction.


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Offbeat Museums / , ,

The Best Stamps from Beijing’s Incredible Stamp Museum (including 3-D North Korean stamps!)

Continuing on from yesterday’s post, here are my six top favorite collections from Beijing’s wonderful stamp and post museum…. Sorry for the spoiler above. But it’s just… too weird.

6. Table Tennis
What’s there not to love about table tennis?  Mao adored it, so did Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai.  Plus, there’s always the game to thank for opening those relations between east and west.  (Actually, I guess you could thank ping pong diplomacy for my even being here!)  You even occasionally find tables sitting hidden in the hutongs, the Chinese version of a basketball hoop in a car park, waiting for locals to walk up with their paddles and start a game.  Thus, a lovely trio of stamps dedicated to the popular sport.

1959 – 25th World Table Tennis Championships

1971 – Afro-Asian Table Tennis Friendship Invitational Tournament

1971 – Afro-Asian Table Tennis Friendship Invitational Tournament

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/ by Dean Pickles / 3 Comments