The Berkeley City Council voted on Tuesday to support a museum exhibition that primarily features 15th- and 16th-Century European instruments of torture and death.
But while the ghoulish exhibits in the Historical Torture Museum might appeal to our darker curiosities, exhibitors say their message is anti-torture and anti-capital punishment.
The exhibit, which is sponsored by an array of humans rights organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Center for Justice and Accountability, is currently showing at the Herbst International Exhibit Hall in San Francisco’s Presidio.
The council endorsed the exhibit, which includes Inquisitorial chairs, garrotes and an iron maiden, by a vote of 7-2, with Mayor Shirley Dean and Councilmember Polly Armstrong voting no.
“I understand the reason for the exhibit but I just can’t bring myself to support it,” Dean said. “I can face a lot of stuff but not that. The whole thing gives me the willies.”
Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who sponsored the recommendation, said he was surprised the endorsement did not get a unanimous vote.
“I guess some people reacted to the recommendation like these instruments of torture are throwbacks to another century, like they’re ancient history,” he said. “But torture still goes on today and education leads to prevention.”
Worthington said capital punishment is a good example of torture that causes human suffering to the condemned and their families.
In a letter of support posted on the Historical Torture Museum’s Website, the president of Amnesty International’s Spanish Section, Manuel Corroza Muro, agrees.
“If we do not provoke decided and tenacious indignation against this barbarism, the coming century will bring, without a doubt, a rich harvest of devices, monstrosities of torture and death.” his letter reads.
The exhibit, which opened on July 7, coincides with a series of lectures and roundtables that will also take place at the Herbst International Exhibit Hall on Wednesday and Thursday evenings through October 10. Lectures and roundtables are free and will cover national and international events such as, “The Death Penalty and the Case of Mumia Abu Jamal,” “Death www.torturamuseum.com.Row in Texas” and “Torture in Chile During the Pinochet years.”
According to the exhibit’s Website, the torture instruments are owned by Italian scholars who have made the diabolical equipment available for exhibitions throughout Europe and South America.
The show includes the Maiden of Nuremberg, a standing sarcophagus that was fitted with spikes to pierce its victims when the lid was closed. The spikes were arranged as not to pierce any vital organs so the victim could be kept alive but in excruciating pain. The thick container was designed so screams could not be heard outside. The image of a young maiden was carved on the door of the container, which scholars guess was added to improve the device’s image.
There is also a series of inquisition chairs, which have spikes designed to pierce the skin when sat upon. One chair has the capacity to be heated with coals to cause additional discomfort.
Other instruments include a garrote used to slowly choke its victims. According to the museum Website, the garrote was used as the official means of capitol punishment in Spain until 1975. There is also a heretics fork, an especially nasty little tool for forcing victims to keep their heads erect.
Marianne Graham, a Berkeley resident who attended the exhibit’s opening, said she was disturbed by the show but also inspired to become active with Amnesty International.
Graham said she finally had her home computer hooked up to the Internet so she could receive notices from Amnesty International about human rights violations all over the world.
“This is a powerful mechanism,” she said. “It just grabs you and makes you think seriously.”
Despite the stated good intentions of the exhibit, some are skeptical of its impact.
“I think it panders to a base curiosity,” Councilmember Armstrong said. “There’s so much meanness and cruelty around today we don’t need to be sponsoring it.”
For more information about the exhibit call (415) 646-0606 or see the Website www.torturamuseum.com