The Museum of Mortality: A Meeting With Death

Museum of mortality logo

Melinda Mitchell is the the Founder, Director, and Head Curator for the Museum of Mortality. A start-up museum that is in year 2 of a 5 year plan for opening.

What is the Museum of Mortality?
A lot of people look at me with the most curious look when I bring up the museum. The most common question is, a museum about death? Well in short yes, but no.

The Museum of Mortality primarily looks at the 1850’s-1950’s, that is when a major shift in our mortality rates happened. We went from a low life expectancy and high mortality rates to living longer, less sickness and better health care.

We wanted to examine and preserve how the average person dealt with death in this changing time period.


Why Create a Museum about death?

There is much more to life then just death. Let us start with how the museum became an idea.

My mother started collecting antiques long before I was born, and she got me into it. There is just something about preserving history that is exciting.

Things used to be made to last, the amount of craftsmanship that would go into pieces astounding. You don’t find that quality anymore.  About 13 years ago my mother was a costumed docent at a museum and they were doing a historical cemetery walk. I was already making Victorian-styled garments, so she had me make her a Victorian mourning skirt so she could talk more about Victorian Mourning Traditions. This kicked off our passion for collecting Victorian Mourning items. Slowly our collection began to build with Victorian hair art and jewelry, and other mourning items.

One day, a friend of mine said how jealous she was of our collection and that she wanted my mom to adopt her so she could inherit half the collection. She also mentioned that the collection should be in a museum, thus the idea was born.

cooling casket

I originally looked into museums to host our artifacts, but found that there was almost nothing that covered our topics. Most places only focused on one area of death. The closest I could find was the Museum of Death in California and Louisiana. California mainly deals with celebrity death and Louisiana focuses on serial killers, these are also 18 and over museums. For funeral information, there is the Funeral Museum in Texas, and a small handful of others around the country, but they focus just on the funeral industry. The medical aspect is sort of covered by the Surgical Museum in Chicago, and Mutter in Pennsylvania. Nothing really covers the full aspect of the Museum of Mortality.

I wanted to cover more then just death, but how drastically our lives changed in the last 150 or so years regarding our handling of it. The led to the birth of the Museum of Mortality.

Breaking it down we were able to see how there were three main components of that change and those are the aspects I wanted to cover.

  • Funerary
    • Death was something that was dealt with at and in the home. The families would clean and dress the body, while waiting for a coffin to be made. Embalming did not become the norm until long after the Civil War.
  • Medical
    • We come from an era where medicine had no rules, we had some understanding of the human body but not a lot. We went from the uses of honey, mud, maggots, blood letting, leeches, and other vile items to patented medicines and testing. Our understanding of the human body went from basing everything off the dissection of pigs and dogs to actually dissecting the whole human body down to the nervous system.
  • Spiritualism
    • During and after the Civil War with death not being dealt with in the home, it was more impersonal. This left people wondering about the afterlife and Spiritualism took hold. Seances, table rapping, hypnotism, mesmerism all became common as people reached for their deceased.

Museum of mortality logo

What is your favorite part of the museum?

It is all my favorite. There is so much we are looking at doing from large to scale scenes where you can see how things actually looked back then from a one room log cabin, to a higher class Victorian Parlor in full mourning, a working Seance room, to a train car exhibit that you can go into that will talk about how we transported our dead, and even a full teaching surgical theater. I guess the part that calls me the most is the fact that there will be in essence small miniature museums with in the museum. One of these you will find on our street of shops. Similar to the Streets of Old Milwaukee in the Milwaukee Public Museum, we want you to wander the streets of old and feel like you are being transported back in time. All the buildings there will tell a different facet of the way of city life, the progression of the funeral industry, and so much more. I have even been gathering glass and crystal for a “store” that displays how glass and table wear changed over the years.

Uranium Glass

I also love all the learning parts of the museum and all the different class programs we are planning from Victorian Hair Art, to simple taxidermy. We want this to be an all ages museum. We will be planning to have a skull rating where parents can decide if they really want to take children into some of the sensitive areas or not, but there will be something for everyone with in our walls.

What is your most prized artifact so far in the collection?

This one is even tougher for me then which is my favorite part, because each artifact has a history, a story. Each one is special from the little pack of Doan’s Intestinal pills, to the 1850’s- 1860’s ice pack transport pre-view coffin. And I am blessed to be able to share each and every single one of those stories through static displays, interactive displays, scavenger hunts, movies and more.

I heard that there might be something very special in the works for the museum?

Well not only do we want you to have fun, and learn about history, we want you to feel like you are a part of it. We are looking at even building in a Victorian Tea room where you can spend some time drinking tea and noshing of foods. We hope to have a tin type artist come in from time to time and actually put you and your family into the Victorian Parlor for real tin type photographs. We want you to be able to go home and know that you had a fun time learning about the past. And who knows, maybe if you follow us on our social medias and help us get off the ground through sponsorship there might even be some really awesome perks in it as time goes on. Like the fact we are developing a game based on museum artifacts. So sign up for our newsletter, follow our media’s, and if you can kick in a few bucks to our fund raising campaign to get our 501c3 not-for-profit status.

Biggest Question, WHERE IS THIS GOING TO BE?

We are currently looking at the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area, or with in a 15-20 minute drive of it since we will need year round tourism to help keep the museum going. We hope to be opening the doors to the actual physical museum with in the next 3-5 years. So stay tuned.


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